It has been a while since I posted, so I decided to post this article on neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is what allows change in our brain and thus in the rest of our lives. Neurons that fire together, wire together is the old adage. Because our brain can change, through new neuronal connections and through neurogenesis, we are able to learn and develop. Here are some ways to make neuroplasticity work for you.
I thought I had posted this video before, but it doesn't seem to be on my blog. So as a companion to my post on depth deprivation is Johann Hari's TED Talk on the cause of addiction. It is powerful and spot on. Enjoy!
Johann Hari: Everything You Know About Addictions Is Wrong
"You are suffering from depth deprivation." -James Finely, contemplative retreat, Tucson, AZ 2016
According to Finley, depth deprivation is the essence of addiction. Addiction is an attempt to create a sense of connection and depth, to escape the void inside ourselves. Depth deprivation is also the essence of most of our troubles. Trauma separates us from ourselves and others. In the depths of depression and anxiety we are disconnected from the world around us. The busyness of our daily lives keeps us from pausing. A pause which would allow for a qualitatively deeper awareness of the world and our connection to the world. Our busyness, too, is a symptom. We want to avoid the pain we feel, the anger, the loneliness, and unconsciously everything we do is a distraction from ourselves. And of course! The unconscious does a great job at protecting us from pain. Who wants to be uncomfortable? Who wants to feel the pain? Conversely, when we dig deep, we may realize we even fear the joy. The discomfort of "Who am I without this pain?" The uneasiness of the unknown. Yet, if we can be curious about ourselves, without judgment, and find a companion to help us through our Dark Night, we can fulfill our desire for connection and depth.
To do so we have to pause "in a sustained, heartfelt manner" (Finley). Naturally we do this when we are in nature, admiring art, when in solitude, in moments of intimacy, in prayer, and in meditation. The challenge is to develop the stance of least resistance, as this connection can not be forced, but comes about through our sustained presence to ourselves and the word (Finley). It need not be perfect. Through our contemplative stance, our being with ourselves, this sustained presence builds upon itself. There is no spiritual bypassing, no glossing over the hurt by focusing on the positive. The gift of the process is the love and understanding of ourselves, which without even realize it we express in the world. We must have the courage to explore our depths, our pain and joys, in order to fulfill our deepest longing.
Often I hear others tell me what they need to do. "I need to go to the gym" or "I need to eat better." I also hear professionals, such as coaches and trainers, telling their clients what they "need" to do. Unfortunately, telling ourselves (and others) what we need to do is defeating, adds unnecessary pressure, and inhibits motivation. It leads to shame and disappointment in ourselves when we fail to do what we supposedly need to do. In reality, there are few needs. We need to eat, we need liquids, and we need to keep warm in the cold. We have many more choices in life than we realize and we make them every day. We are active agents in our personal sphere of influence far more than we realize.
In reality, as a friend observed, when we say, "I need to do X" we are really saying, "X is something I know I SHOULD do, but I am not going to do it. Like with my glasses. I keep saying I need to get new glasses. I would have gotten them if I were going to do it." In fact, we have already made the choice NOT to do it. So, is it really a need? If we break it down further we are not being fully honest with ourselves. We are denying that we are choosing not to do something and we are not looking at the conflict in us that surrounds this choice. Examining and being curious about the conflict can help us understand what is in the way of doing or getting what we want. And then there are the shoulds. Not doing all of these "shoulds" leads to us feeling shameful and unhappy in life. We feel unsatisfied that we aren't doing everything we "should do" and feel pressure because there isn't enough time in the day to get all these "shoulds" done. So we are left feeling empty and exhausted, as though life is passing us by without any sense of agency in what is happening to us.
Instead, I invite you to start thinking in terms of what you want and what you choose to do. Often, there really is not time in the day to do everything, therefore, it is helpful to discern what we will and will not do. First, remember your goal. "Keeping the goal in mind" is one of the key factors in willpower and motivation, as motivation researcher Kelly McGonigal states. Then you can make an informed choice. A choice that is towards your goal or towards a different objective given the circumstance. It is not bad to choose opposite of your goal, as there may be something more pressing in any given situation.
For example, perhaps you want to live a healthier lifestyle by eating more nutritiously and exercising. It is the end of the day and you are tired. You really want to get home and relax rather than go to the gym, but you had planned to exercise after work. Instead of telling yourself, "I really need to go to the gym" which is not at all motivating and just adds to the pressure, realize that you now have a choice. You can either choose to go home or choose to go to the gym. Tell yourself, "I am choosing to go to the gym because I want to be healthier. I'll feel more energy after too!" How do you feel when you say that versus the "I need to" statement? It may be subtle as you read this.
Stating what you choose to do leads to a feeling of empowerment and even courage. It motivates us to do more because we become an active agent in our life rather than being a passive spectator while life just happen to us. It may take some time to feel this way, but it can happen. As your start to reach your goal, it becomes easier because you experience the benefits of your choices more directly.
That is it, this should is a choice. It is YOUR choice. As I have written about before, we may not want to do something but we can choose to do it anyway. As we start moving towards what we want, it can be difficult and challenging because often results are not immediate. Notice how you feel as you make the more difficult choice. That feeling you get when you do something challenging is a big motivator, and it stays with you as you realize you can do what at first seems difficult. It is empowering. Looking at the hero's journey, it is never easy. But by facing our challenges we learn our real strength. If we avoid because of a fear failure (that is another post) we will not learn who we really are and we won't achieve our goals. As Joseph Campbell writes in The Hero's Journey, "The self is the whole range of possibilities that you've never even thought of.... The self is a whole field of potentialities to come through."
What brings you life? A seemingly simple question, but when contemplated upon subtle nuances and more questions arise. "Why did my relationship not emerge in my answering?" "Am I really happy in my career?" A regular practice can help us discover what frees and what fetters our spirit. Finding a regular practice can be challenging. If you are atheist or agnostic, you may not want a spiritual exercise but some other ritual that brings meaning and wisdom to your life. The examen is a simple process that can function to enhance your depth and discernment.
The essense of the examen is two questions. Both are equally important.
For what moment today am I most grateful?
These questions can be asked many ways: "When did I give and receive the most love today?" "When did I give and receive the least love today?" "What was today's high point?" " What was today's low point?" or "What gave me life today?" "What drained me today?" If you are working on a particular issues, you can explore that with the examen. For example, "When today did I ask for what I needed?" "When today did I not ask for what I needed?" or "When did I listen to my inner voice today?" "When did I ignore my inner voice today?"
The first question brings us gratitude. It reminds us of what nourishes and fulfills us, what quenches our thirst. The second question acknowledges our difficulties and struggles. It allows us to be with difficult emotions without avoiding or disavowing them. It prevents spiritual bypassing. Acknowledging the sharp points, as Pema Chodron aptly calls them, is essential to wisdom. The key to the examen is answering without judgment. No answer is right or wrong. As Rilke says, no feeling is final.
Daily reflection is an important practice to help us grow and better know ourselves. Through this examination we learn what brings us life. You can make a ritual of the examen. Light a candle or make tea and sit quietly for a time before asking and reflecting upon your examen questions. You may choose to journal your answers, or to draw as part of your practice. Make it your own. It does not have to be a long drawn out process; often the examen can be done in ten to twenty minutes. It is also a exercise you can do with others, as a way to build connection and vulnerability with loved ones. Over time the examen can bring many gifts. Patterns emerge and we may see how we have changed over time and what nourishes us now. The examen is a simple and beautiful practice to add to your life.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Ranier Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59
Since before Freud, therapists have stressed the important of early childhood experiences on the psyche and development. With advances in neuroscience and ongoing research, we are learning more about the extent of the impact of early childhood experiences. This is taken from Medical News Today.
Do the effects of early caregiving experiences remain or fade as individuals develop? A new study has found that sensitive caregiving in the first three years of life predicts an individual's social competence and academic achievement, not only during childhood and adolescence, but also into adulthood.
The study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, appears in the journal Child Development. It was carried out in an effort to replicate and expand on findings from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which showed that early maternal sensitivity has lasting associations with children's social and cognitive development at least through adolescence.
"The study indicates that the quality of children's early caregiving experiences has an enduring and ongoing role in promoting successful social and academic development into the years of maturity," notes Lee Raby, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, who led the study.
Sensitive caregiving is defined as the extent to which a parent responds to a child's signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child, and provides a secure base for the child's exploration of the environment.
The researchers used information from 243 individuals who were born into poverty, came from a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds, and had been followed from birth into adulthood (age 32) as part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation. Observations of interactions between mothers and their children were collected four times during the children's first three years of life. At multiple ages during childhood and adolescence, teachers reported on children's functioning in their peer groups and children completed standardized tests of academic achievement. During their 20s and early 30s, participants completed interviews in which they discussed their experiences with romantic relationships and reported their educational attainment.
Individuals who experienced more sensitive caregiving early in life consistently functioned better socially and academically during the first three decades of life, the study found. The associations were larger for individuals' academic outcomes than for their functioning in peer and romantic relationships. Moreover, early caregiving experiences continued to predict individuals' academic, but not social, functioning after accounting for early socioeconomic factors as well as children's gender and ethnicity. Although families' economic resources were important predictors of children's development, these variables didn't fully account for the persistent and long-term influence of early caregiving experiences on individuals' academic success.
"Altogether, the study suggests that children's experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning--not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood," according to Raby. "This suggests that investments in early parent-child relationships may result in long-term returns that accumulate across individuals' lives. Because individuals' success in relationships and academics represents the foundation for a healthy society, programs and initiatives that equip parents to interact with their children in a sensitive manner during the first few years of their children's life can have long-term benefits for individuals, families, and society at large."
Jami Parrish, LPC, CSAT, CMC is a therapist and coach whose aim is to help others live fully and authentically. She is currently practicing in Tucson, AZ