Are you alright…right now?

I bet you are. Mostly because if you are reading this you are not being chased by the police, or an elephant or even a shark. If you are in the middle of a major medical procedure like heart bypass or having your gall bladder removed, you are probably not reading this. The truth of the matter is, most of the time you are alright right now.

I’ve been reading Just One Thing by Rick Hanson. It’s a book of simple practices to add to your life to develop a buddha brain. A buddha brain, as defined by Dr. Hanson, is using neuroscience and emotional balance to create happiness, love and wisdom. Couldn’t we all use a dose of that? Well, this is lesson 42, which is titled: “Notice that you’re alright right now.”

Here is how to implement this into your own life:

PauseAs I write this, it’s ten days before Christmas. I’m busy putting up the Christmas Tree and I can’t seem to get one strand of lights to work. I’m not sure if I have bought enough presents for both my kids, my house is getting repaired, and I have huge financial decisions looming on the horizon. I know you have similar preoccupations. It may be a medical decision or the unknown leak under your car. There is something preoccupying your head. Press pause. Stop. This very instant. You may think you don’t have time, but unless you are in the middle of performing brain surgery, you have time to pause. So pause.

Sense.  Now that you have stopped your monkey brain from ping ponging from issue to problem to disaster to worry, scan your body. How is your big toe doing? Still there? Any pain? What about your ear lobes? Still hanging in there? Slight pain in your back from that workout yesterday? Ok. But you are doing okay for the most part. Sense it. After I read this lesson last night, I was snug under the covers of my bed. That’s a wonderful feeling. Sense the moment. Right now.

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Stock.  Take stock in the moment right now. Is there a roof over your head? Do you have food in the fridge? Shoes on your feet? People you love and care about? When you take stock, you figure out that it’s not so bad. In the past few months, I have gone down the rabbit hole of catastrophizing my financial situation. When I do that, I am diminished. Reduced. Small. A victim. But when I take stock in the moment? I am a badass. I have the tiger by the tail. How would you rather feel? I thought so. Grab the tiger by the tail and take stock in how much you have.

Relax. As Dr. Hanson writes in Psychology Today, “This background of unsettled-ness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. Or a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting down, letting go.” This is going to take practice. We are so hardwired for scanning the environment for threat that relaxing into the moment is against our biology. Feel your shoulders, let them sag. Relax your jaw. Let your thoughts go like balloons into the blue sky. Breathe. Try it. I’ll wait. There is no rush.

 

So how did that feel? Pretty good, huh? Check in throughout the day. Is everything alright right now? Maybe it’s at the top of the hour. Maybe it’s when you wash your hands. The important thing is just to notice

Transforming the Negativity Bias

This starts in grade school. Two kids are whispering and you assume it’s about you. Your boss hasn’t responded to your email in a week and you think she’s getting ready to demote you. Your child is late getting home and you assume they have been in a car accident. It’s all hardwired into your brain. Your ancestors didn’t wait around to find out if the rustle in the bushes was a saber tooth tiger. They ran. If they didn’t run, you wouldn’t be here.

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The problem is that this constant focus on the negative in today’s day and age, is bad for your body and brain. If something good and something bad happen in the same day, you end up focusing on the bad. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “Over and over, the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.” As Tony Robbins wrote for the New York Times, “It turns out that cultivating positive emotions such as joy, contentment, interest, pride and love pays huge dividends.” The good news is that you can rewire your brain towards the positive.

Here is how to transform your negativity bias:

  • Gratitude.  Taking stock of what is going right. It could be as simple as a roof over your head, being grateful for your child graduating college, or having your boss actively listen to you. I personally have been writing in a gratitude journal for over five years. I used to do it in the evening and then switched to the morning. I used to write five individual things like “Daddy”, “Baci”, “Dinner”, “Natalie” and “Ben”. Now I write three things and say, “I am grateful for Janine’s support. I am grateful for Joe’s attentive listening. I am grateful for a great dinner at SoCo.” It’s more specific and writing the word “grateful” has a bigger impact. Be grateful.

 

  • Store.  Look back right now at something that has happened positive today. I just had delicious bacon and eggs with my daughter. She really enjoyed the bacon. Now I need to stop, dwell and think about that positive experience, while I take a few breaths in order to store the positive experience in my head. This is an idea posited by Rick Hanson in a TedTalk. When you relive a positive experience in your mind for even a few seconds, it rewires your brain towards the positive. Be sure to be storing the positive experiences.

 

  • Score.  I struggle with this one. I even have Positivity as one of my top 5 from StrengthsFinders. According to John Gottman, there needs to be at least a 3 to 1 ratio and, ideally, a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative feedback you give the people in your life. So try and keep score. Are you telling your kids everything they did wrong and how bad their grades are or looking at what went right? Like, “Hey, thanks for getting up on time” or “Thanks for putting your books away.” We all want praise. It makes us feel better and with us all being hardwired for negativity, remembering that the one criticism you give will likely live on and all the positivity will float away. Keep score of your sincere positive feedback.

 

  • Visualize.  As Marelisa Fabrega wrote for Daring to Live Fully, “Whenever something negative happens to you—for example, someone says something mean to you—visualize a drop of black ink falling into a large container of clear water. Although at first the ink is very black, it quickly mixes with the rest of the water until it’s gone, and all you can see is the clear water again.” I really like the image of the negativity diluting into clear sparkling water.

 

  • Reframe.  Coaching is all about reframing. Coaching is so beneficial because the coach isn’t connected to the outcome. They bring a different perspective and put a different frame around it. My daughter and I just attended a lovely 6-course dinner. One of the courses was not very good. All of the rest were stunning. I started getting wrapped up in the one bad course and started to regret the entire evening. Luckily, my daughter was able to reframe it for me. “Hey, so one course wasn’t so great, but the rest was terrific and it was a magical evening.” It was. A perfect sunset. Lovely wine. Delicious food. Great conversation. Reframe towards the positive.

 

  • Realistic optimism. As Tony Schwarz wrote for the New York Times, “The notion is not to become an uncritical Pollyanna – but instead to practice “realistic optimism.” That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.” Thus, you aren’t in denial but you can create a story that has a more positive outcome.

 

Either way you flow through your day, your positivity or negativity are contagious. Try and spread the positive stuff and ignite others.

How to have a positive brain

Your coworker is complaining about their boss and you are sucked in.  You start piling on your own jabs, mistreatments and judgments.  You are cut off on the way to work and you start tailgating the person as payback.  “You can’t push me around.”  You overcook the steak and now you think the entire meal is horrible.  There is too much salt, the beans are limp and the mashed potatoes are gummy.  It all feeds on itself.  The negative outcome of one thing goes wrong and now everything else spirals out of control.  Your brain is wired for a negativity bias and in a world full of terrorism, wicked politics and “if it bleeds, it leads” sensationalized news, it can be catastrophically overwhelming.positive brain.jpg

Amazingly, you can overcome this.  It’s going to take work but it’s fun work.  Your brain is so malleable and elastic that you can actually rewire how you see the world.  You can create a more positive brain and actually become more resilient in the process.  Isn’t that great?  We do not have to be victims of our modern day culture but can be in a happier, more relaxed positive state of mind.  Are you up for this?

Here is how to create a more positive brain:

  • Pay attention to the good thoughts.  When you are having a positive thought like Doesn’t my dog look adorable next to me or I just made everyone at the meeting laugh or My husband is dancing in the doorway to my office.  It’s like catching butterflies, you need to keep your butterfly net at the ready.  Go catch them.  Unfortunately, our negative bias frequently hijacks our brain.  We tune into what is going wrong like the air temperature, the weather or your phone being slow.  So you need to be vigilant in order to catch the good things as they flutter by.
  • Figure out what this experience or memory says about you.  For example, when my dog is lying next to me in my office, I feel loved and appreciated.  When I make everyone at the meeting laugh, I feel like I belong.  When my husband dances in my office doorway, I feel joy and silliness.  As Rick Hanson says this adds and “enriches the experience.”  His analogy is that it’s like adding logs to a fire.  It burns even brighter.  Keep adding logs to enrich and strengthen the great experience.
  • Soak up the positive experience like a sponge.  Rick Hanson turned me onto this and he has a great Ted Talk on the topic: Hardwiring Happiness.  Once you have caught that great experience, observation or memory, dwell on it for a bit.  As Rick says, it can be for only 1 or 2 seconds, but marinate in the positive feeling.  It is amazing how this feels.  I feel my chest and head get warm and a smile starts on my face.  I actually feel the happiness.  Even if for a moment or two.  In a few moments, you have actually fired neurons in your brain and started the process of rewiring.  Isn’t that amazing?  You have taken one small step to rewire your brain in the direction of positivity and happiness.
  • Start a gratitude journal.  I’ve been writing in one for at least a decade.  I write down 5 things I am grateful for and I think about a situation that I turned around to the positive.  For example, if my husband didn’t respond to my text, I figure his phone must be in another room (instead of he is in the ER and can’t answer his phone).  One little reframe a day helps me keep a positive mindset and by acknowledging each reframe each day, I maintain the mindset.
  • Mediation or yoga.  You do not have to silence your self-talk.  This is the biggest misconception about meditation.  A lot of people think that in meditation, you sit quietly and a switch in your head turns off.  It is a practice and it is never perfect.  Okay, so maybe there is a monk or two out there who can turn off their brains, but the rest of us mortals are all working with letting thoughts go.  It’s letting worries go like balloons into the air.  Try it for 3 minutes.  Get an app like Calm, Whil or Headspace.  Most are free, so you can start now.  And why not sign up for a yoga class while you’re at it?  Even a once-a-week yoga session will give you physical benefits, increasing strength and flexibility.  Plus it will help you to reduce stress and have a more positive outlook about your self and the world around you.
  • Turn off the catastrophic messages.  I turned off the news some four months ago.  I don’t have any news apps on my phone.  I TiVo most of the television I watch, so I don’t need to view political ads.  I don’t know if it’s the meditation practice or turning off the news, but I am much more relaxed and positive.  It’s probably a combination of all these steps.  I just notice this one the most.  I was watching a college football game yesterday live on television and all of a sudden I was being bombarded with political ads.  I felt like I was being assaulted.  Negative ads stick more than positive (because of our negative bias), and they were hurling them at me like hand grenades.  I am still informed about the political race and am voting.  I just stay away from the distracting, stress-inducing messages.  It was a relief to go back to my TiVo recorded shows and away from all that negativity.

Being more relaxed and happy has really helped me stay resilient and confident.  This past month, I have had more speaking and facilitation gigs than ever before.  Three years ago, I would have stressed out about each gig and lost sleep over the event.  Now I just take one at a time, imagine the best outcome, and take it as it comes.  I’m a better facilitator because of my positivity practice.  Try it yourself.

Being there. 6 ways to pay attention.

Ugh. It happened AGAIN! You have no idea what everyone is laughing at because you are busy checking your smart phone for notifications.
You can’t go back. All you can do is smile and nod.
You missed yet another moment. You could have connected. You could have been included in that moment of fellowship. You could belong.
But no. Your phone is the center of your world. One little ding or lit up mailbox and you zone out of the real world.
This has got to stop. You’ve got to find your focus and start connecting with those around you. Now.

This topic came up for me as I read the book, Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. The book itself is about micro resolutions but one of the subjects in her book was a recently divorced father who had his kids every other weekend. They went away to a country house every other weekend and instead of spending time together, they ended up spending the weekend with their technology instead of with each other. Have you experienced this? I have. So the father started the resolution that they could only spend an hour a day on technology and then, all the phones and tablets went into a basket. The three kids baulked at first (who wouldn’t) but after two weekends, they started looking forward to the time they spent together “being there” together. Board games, hikes, charades, conversations….sounds like heaven.
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So here is how to get your attention back:

Focus your attention on every little action like you are in love. Arnold quotes acting guru Stella Adler. She writes that in an acting class Adler said, “How can you tell when someone is in love? How can you tell? You can tell because they pay attention. They pay attention to their lover’s every action, gesture and expression. So if you are playing someone in love, give the love object your complete attention in a scene. Even if you aren’t looking at your object directly.” As I write this, I am watching my dog. Is she by my foot or in another room? Is she wagging her tail or is she on the hunt. Take note of every action.

Take a technology sabbatical. I’m not sure when my children will be home next but I’m really thinking about taking a cue from the father in Arnold’s book and taking a technology sabbatical. I know I personally leave my phone in the kitchen to charge at night. At least my sleep is getting my full and undivided attention. But creating space to be devoid of any distractions from the world outside can obviously be very powerful. Perhaps it’s a “no phones during meals” rule or “no technology after 7 PM” rule. Create space to be technology free.

Create something worthwhile and positive. Rick Hanson says in his book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, “Attention shapes the brain.” Your brain cells are growing based on what you focus on. So what are you creating in your brain? Are you creating negativity by focusing on the latest news story or dwelling on the job opportunity you didn’t get? Or on the latest decision by your boss that you don’t agree with? Hmmm. I’d rather create something more positive in all that grey matter. Be careful about what you are creating.

Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. In Alison Shapiro’s Psychology Today article Paying Attention, “Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally ‘criticize’ it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention. Judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action.” This neutrality is complete acceptance. Funny, I’m really good at this when coaching a client but not as good when this comes to my children’s individual decisions. Quit judging and stay neutral.

Welcome Everything; Push Away Nothing. Shapiro quotes her teacher, Frank Ostaseski, “Welcome Everything; Push Away Nothing.” This lines up with the “Yes…and” philosophy of CRR Global. This is total unadulterated acceptance. Arms open wide to take in everything with no qualifications. No trying to tinker and change something. No resistance. No squinting and squirming. It’s similar to Byron Katie’s “Love what is.” Notice, accept, withhold judgment and welcome what is.

Be completely and utterly present. The whole problem with technology and the constant bombardment of information is that it takes us out of the moment. Out of the present. Listen for the farthest sound. Feel your big toe come in contact with the floor. Feel the rush of hot, humid air against your cheek. Listen for the sigh from your sleeping dog. Watch the squirrel leap from the branch to the roof. Now. Right now. Be there.

So now when you’re at that meeting. You are going to be jubilant.
Connected.
Aware.
Present.
You’re not tied to that phone and it’s deceiving notifications.
You’re leading the story and the laughs are around your nuanced spin.
You’ve got the world by the tail. Feels pretty good doesn’t it?

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on September 11, 2015