Friday, May 28, 2010

It was an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow polka dot bikini.....

OK, I am showing my age here with this one. (I remember my Dad singing that song when I was little.) And for the record, the bikini had blue and purplish flowers. Whoever would have thought there was a profound “aha moment” waiting for me in my bikini in a bay in Hawaii?

It was 7 months after my brain injury. I was still mentally impaired, but trying very hard not to act like it. Just packing for the trip and navigating my way through the airport was a real challenge for me. It made my underarms wet. At times, I felt like a scared, little kid lost at the mall.

Then there were times that I told myself “You can do this. Dammit!” It felt great just to accomplish what most people would consider normal. Everything terrified me, but somehow I knew that I had to overcome the fear and push through it to regain any kind of semblance of a regular life.

I had gone to Hawaii with my brother and this was our first snorkeling excursion. Hanomolino Bay looked like something on a postcard. There were leaning palm trees complete with coconuts flanking a beach of black sand leading up to azure blue water rolling into the beach in gentle waves capped with white surf.

For a while, we were content to swim around the little bay and ooh and aah at the colorful sights under the surface. Not being nearly as physically coordinated as I used to be, it took me a while to get the hang of breathing though the tube. I used to be a lifeguard during the summers in college, so I soon felt pretty comfortable. I ventured out to where the bay opened up to the ocean. The current and waves had much more force here.

I kicked some rocks with my fin, and it came off and sunk to the bottom. It was probably about 20 feet deep. Without the fin, I was not nearly as strong a swimmer.

Just keeping my ahead above the water and fighting the waves was a struggle. I was really scared now. I swallowed big gulps of salty water. I had that urgent, panicky feeling I would imagine an antelope has when being chased by a lion. I managed to make it over to some rocks and to partially climb up on them cutting my feet and legs in the process. They were covered with coral and sliced my skin upon contact.

By this time, my brother had noticed my predicament. He yelled for me to stay on the rocks while he went and got my sand shoes. Never having been one to follow directions too well, I decided to swim to a sail boat anchored in the bay rather than just wait there.

After what seemed like the longest swim of my life, I reached the sailboat and managed to grab the top of the side of it and gasp out several times a squeaky, but urgent "help!"

A thin, scruffy looking man with long hair and wearing cutoff jeans – think stoner - came up on deck. He looked startled and surprised, to say the least, to see me hanging from the side of his boat in my bikini bleeding. He had that “WTF??” look -- like he was not sure he wasn’t hallucinating. After he got it, he rowed me to shore in a little boat. My hippie hero!

The experience scared me, for sure, but was also a very meaningful lesson. I was brain injured because I had tried to kill myself. In the months that followed, I did recover physically somewhat, but I was still unstable emotionally. I was undecided as to whether I wanted to live this life. I wanted to kill myself before, and now I was supposed to live like this - half retarded and sounding like I was drunk? I was not convinced.

I realized that instinctively, without me going through all the typical drama of weighing the pros and cons, something inside of me had just kicked in and fought hard to live. I could have very easily just slipped quietly under the water and finished what I had started months earlier. Eureka! Something inside of me wanted to live!

That was a major turning point for me in which I realized that I did not want to die. Since then, I have been acting like I want to live. I started taking responsibility for my recovery and my life. I have worked every day to get better and to make my life better. I have a few grains of black sand in my foot that remained after it healed to remind me of the valuable lesson I learned that day just in case I ever forget.

Friday, May 21, 2010

I'll take Door #2

Just what is this thing we call happiness? Go ahead. Try to define it. You will end up describing feelings or things or even circumstances. These will undoubtedly vary from person to person because happiness is a completely subjective perception and experience. It is a universal "you know what I mean" feeling, but to precisely pinpoint its components is impossible.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert tells of two conjoined twins, who, fused at the forehead, have spent their whole lives looking at each other eye to eye, sharing every waking and sleeping moment. Can you even imagine? Most of us would think this existence rather abysmal, yet they are joyful, content, and optimistic...happy. They have no desire at all to be separated.

We may look at them and see only the challenges and the inconveniences. However, what if we consider the other possible attributes of this situation? It is a matter of where we place our focus. The idea of always having your best friend right there, someone who knows you better than any one else and who knows all your secrets, good and bad, is a pretty rich one. We might say "They only think they are happy because they don't know any different." That is precisely the point! They have found happiness within their current circumstances.

Happiness is a point of view, an emotional experience that is different for each individual. We can all pretty much agree that the sky is what we define to be blue. However, we can in no way be certain every one is looking at the sky and having the same experience of blue.

Happiness is roughly the same neural activity pattern in all human beings and within the same person. Yet, happiness is very different from person to person and has a wide range of manifestations within the same individual. While devouring some Ben and Jerry's Caramel Sutra ice cream, burying my face in the soft, furry belly of a purring cat, and getting jiggy to Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" may all activate the same electrical happy circuit in my brain, they are very different experiences.

Happiness may not be neatly defined, but I think no one would argue with its' mega importance in every life. Human beings are innately programmed to strongly desire and seek happiness - whatever that may be for them.

Happiness is therefore a personal pursuit and decision for each one of us. It is natural for someone to experience panic and anxiety when they find that the company is cutting expenses, and their job is one way in which they are accomplishing this. It is natural to grieve and be sad when your partner walks off into the sunset without you. These types of situations are an unavoidable and uncontrollable part of life. However, each one of us does have the power to move through these experiences and to choose to keep working towards happiness everyday. It is a choice. A decision.

It is like the Let's Make a Deal show. Remember that one? No matter what door you choose or what is behind it...the new car or the billy can choose happiness. You get to go home with something...even if it is a farm animal. It is all in your point of view and focus.

Friday, May 14, 2010

As good as it gets?

If I told you that you were a big, fat zero, would you say "Thank you" and squeal with delight or would you get in a huff and be insulted? If I were to ask you to rate yourself on a scale from negative ten to positive ten, would you put yourself happily at zero and be proud and content? I would think not.

If we score mental health on a scale from negative values representing mental illness to positive values with zero representing the threshold of the absence of clinical mental illness, "normal" is a zero. In the western world, the underlying assumption is that "normal," free from mental illness, is a healthy mind and is as good as it gets. Most of the mental health information and programs in our society focus on getting people to the zero line - not above it.

This "normal" mind still experiences many forms of mental distress such as anxiety, frustration, boredom, restlessness, unhappiness, and resentment. This is considered just part of life and how things are. As long as these are not chronic or disabling, that person gets a passing grade. Anything above "normal" is generally reserved for monks or saints, and it not thought of as something that can be cultivated and learned and certainly not expected.

Our society and our science focuses on the mental states below zero. In the last several decades, there have been thousands of studies on mental illness and a pitiful few on happiness, contentment, joy and compassion. We know almost nothing about the qualities that make life worth living and the accompanying brain states.

Many philosophies of today teach that which is focused on materializes. Paying attention to something feeds it and gives it energy to perpetuate. So, be careful what you focus on in your own life! Hence, worrying only brings what you are worrying about into your reality. Get it? As a society, focusing on the downside of mental health only brings about more of the same.

As individuals, we need to strive to rise above "normal." Aim higher than this baseline which is somewhere above depression but far below what is possible. Humanity does not have to be satisfied with this this minimal level of mental and emotional health.

Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to physically, permanently change based on repetitive experiences, provides everyone with the ability to improve and change their own mental and emotional functioning. As individuals and as a population, it is entirely possible to attain higher levels of attention, awareness, happiness, peace, empathy, compassion, patience, altruism, joy, contentment, etc. I could go on and on. It is possible.

We are coming into a brain fitness era where it will become standard for a person to exercise their brain regularly just like they do their body. Exercise for the brain includes such things as regular meditation, mindfulness practices, visualizations, affirmations, focused attention, and anything stimulating like crossword puzzles, sudoku, learning a foreign language, mastering a musical instrument, even visiting a museum or traveling somewhere new...anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and gets the brain learning and making new connections.

Science is confirming the reality that we can change our brains by studying "above zero" people such as Buddhist monks whose mental baseline is at levels most people only achieve briefly, if ever. What is being learned from them is the key to everyone raising their set point with mental training and hints at what is possible.

I know in my own life, I have gone from somewhere in the negatives to somewhere above zero. Let me tell you, I sure like the view much better on the other side.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Best Belly?

Remember a time when you had one of those strange, but sure gut feelings? You know, that eerie, strong, undeniable certainty of something you could not possibly know based on thinking and logic. I am sure there have been plenty of times when you had that unmistakable flutter of "butterflies" in your stomach or felt green and queasy sick to your stomach as an emotional response to something.

There is a valid basis for all this colorful, folksy speak. I have told you about a second brain in your heart, but did you know there is also a third brain in your belly? The Chinese have long known about this and refer to it as the "monkey brain." Hawaiians have traditionally referred to this as the na'au which includes the bowels, the mind and the heart.

Technically known as the enteric nervous system, this brain consists of a network of some 100 million neurons lining the gut. That is more neurons than in the spinal cord. It can function without any input from the central nervous system and sends information to it. While this brain down below is not the seat (pun intended) of conscious thought, it does exert a powerful influence on our physical bodies and emotional states.

This gut brain uses over 30 neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin just like the brain above. A big part of our emotions are influenced by this brain. Recent scientific studies are linking this brain to stress, depression, autism and even osteoporosis and may have possible implications as to how these are treated.

Our challenge is to learn to listen to the perceptions and the information of the brains in our head, our heart, and our gut. To allow all of them to integrate and have input in directing our lives and creating our realities. In western culture, we are taught pretty much early on to solely rely on the brain in our heads and to totally ignore any other source of wisdom.

In my own experience in the past, the brain in my head greedily took over, running wild, chattering not so nice and anxious nonsense incessantly, until I got completely cut off from any other innate sense of knowledge. I have since learned how to calm it down, and shut it up long enough to let the others get in a word.

It is also our challenge to take care of each of brain in a healthy, respectful manner through diet and exercise. As you can imagine, the brain in our gut and hence, our emotions, are strongly tied to what we put in our bodies. Eat junk, feel like junk.

So the next time you have a gut feeling, give it a little more importance and attention. Your body has a many ways in which it communicates with you. Sssshhhh! Listen.