February 12, 2020 § 27 Comments
In a culture created to make us want more of what we don’t have, gratitude for what we have is a radical act.
When my dear friend asked me to join a 28 day gratitude challenge that was changing her life, I decided to try it.
I had resistance. “Gratitude, rhymes with platitude” chimed my inner cynic. I associated the word gratitude with sunset beach photos on Instagram and the caption #grateful—to which the inner cynic would think, “Yeah, I’d be grateful, too. If I were there.” I told myself I was doing it for solidarity.
Plus, I trusted my friend, and I had nothing but my mid-winter depression to lose. So I gave it a shot.
The daily practices were part of a book by Rhonda Byrnne, called “The Magic.” I started with a free PDF and ended up loving the author’s guidance and prompts so much I bought the book.
I began my first gratitude list in a groggy morning fog —I am one of those “not a morning person” people. I finished feeling downright upbeat. The shift was remarkable. I felt alive again, present, awake; the film burned from my eyes.
The next day I approached the practice with more interest. Again, the perspective shift was uncanny.
The third day, I actually woke up excited to make my list because of the fix of positive feelings it generated. My friend had described this phenomenon as happening to her, and I remember thinking ‘how sweet, but that would never happen for me.’ Uncanny!
By the fourth or fifth day I found myself transforming. I noticed every little joy around me. The fact that each chapter in the book highlights different areas of focus for one’s gratitude added support and inspiration.
How could I have taken so much for granted? The food in my fridge. The clean water at my disposal. The fact that I live during a time when the entire archive of the world’s collected knowledge exists at our literal fingertips. The roof over my head. The peaceful existence and beauty of trees. The use of my legs. The feeling of my cat’s fur and the sound of her purr. The fact that I have eyes, hands, taste; the gift of sentience, of consciousness, of having a body—the opportunity of a day, the gift of my life.
I felt moved to tears. Humbled and awash with reignited appreciation for the world around me.
Intentional gratitude interrupts the trance state of complacency we fall into when we see the same things every day, rebooting our perception to see the world through fresh eyes.
I think no matter what or how little we have, focusing on what we do have breeds empowerment, uplift, joy—is medicine.
The 28 consecutive days of various gratitude practices presented in “The Magic” banished my months-long depression and forever changed my perspective. I’m not saying depression is as simple as a negative outlook, but state of mind does effect mood, and having a gratitude practice is a powerful tool to help manage depression.
I can’t recommend a daily gratitude practice enough. If you want to jump-start your joy try the 28 day challenge.
If the inner landscape can be likened to a wild and sometimes dark wood, then gratitude is my sacred fire—it warms me, lights my way and keeps back the predators.
I want to hear from you! What are your thoughts and experiences on this subject? Comments will automatically be entered into a raffle held on the last day of February 2020. The winner will receive a gifted copy of the book, “The Magic.”
September 29, 2018 § 14 Comments
“A force hums in the heart of wood…the tree is saying things, in words before words.”
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Recent studies confirm what poets & dreamers have always known in their hearts: the trees are talking to each other.
A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of our arboreal friends. Biologists, ecologists & foresters are observing that trees have a quantifiable communication system and intelligence. We are learning that the forest is a community that cares for its own. Trees are social beings who work together for the survival of the whole.
There is a growing body of evidence, pioneered by forest ecology professor Suzanne Simard, which shows that trees communicate through interconnected root systems, in collaboration with fungal networks. This symbiosis forms what is known as “the wood wide web.”
This unifying network is composed of mycorrhizal fungi, of which there are many different species. The fungi send out gossamer-fine threads through the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots, bonding at a cellular level and creating a super-organism.
This collaboration of roots creates an information superhighway, functioning like an underground organic internet. The wood wide web connects whole forests, enabling trees, not only to communicate with one another, but also to share resources.
For example, a tree which receives an excess of sunlight will transmit the resulting nutrients via the wood wide web to a tree that receives only shade. Healthy trees have been known to nurse felled friends, keeping stumps alive for as long as centuries. Parent trees nourish their saplings via the wood wide web, and will even reduce their own root growth to make room for their offspring.
Forest dwelling networks of trees warn one another of danger–-drought, predators, or disease, for instance. They do this by sending electrical signals through their root systems, simultaneously releasing molecules into the air; chemicals which act as messengers. Information can be transmitted in as little as seconds, or take as long as days.
Responding trees then alter their behavior, releasing chemical defenses to ward off predators or conserving water in the case of a drought warning. Trees will even alter their chemical composition in response to warning signals sent by friends under attack, making their leaves taste more bitter to an influx of a certain predator. In short, they work together to survive and thrive.
How might our own communities improve if we took our inspiration from the forest? What does this new understanding of trees have to teach us? Nature is wise. She knows that in giving, one receives, and that the benefit of one improves the whole.
“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it,” notes
As Biology professor, George David Haskell notes: “Dogmas of separation fragment the community of life; they wall humans in a lonely room. We must ask the question: ‘can we find an ethic of full earthly belonging?’” (“The Songs of Trees.”)
Theoretical physicist David Bohm notes that the process of dividing the world into parts is a convenient way of thinking when applied to practical matters. But then we become fooled by our own fragmented perception.
“Man thus obtains an apparent proof of the correctness of his fragmentary self-world view, though, of course, he overlooks the fact that it is he himself, acting according to his mode of thought, who has brought about the fragmentation that now seems to have an autonomous existence, independent of his will and of his desire.” (“Wholeness & Implicit Order.)
What better way to reconnect with our environment than a walk in the woods?
The Japanese have a word, shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” and means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”
Developed in Japan during the 1980s, shinrin-yoku has become a cornerstone of preventative healthcare & healing in Japanese medicine.
Scientific experiments conducted in Japan reveal a host of health improvements that result from a simple 40 minute stroll in the woods:
- Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
- Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
- Increased energy level
- Improved sleep
Studies show that people who just looked at a forest view for 20 minutes had a 13% lower concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. (“The Healing Power of Trees.”)
Many trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells, which are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer. (“The Science of Forest Therapy.”)
Trees have occupied a sacred place in human mythology for all of time. The Tree of Life appears in all of the world’s major religions, while The World Tree appears in a host of Indo-European & Native American cultures.
With its roots in the underworld, it’s trunk in our dimension, and its branches reaching up into the heavens, the World Tree is seen as being the axis that holds the cosmos together.
And trees indeed make our world possible.
I’ll leave you with a bit of tree wisdom from zen master Thich Nhat Hahh:
“I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, ‘No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree.
“Please do not say that I am just this form, because the form of leaf is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’”
August 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Several years ago, I attended an art opening. During the event, I noticed a woman in the crowd start to move in a way that caused her to stand out. Dressed in flowy black clothing, she slowly, with great poise, began to extend her arms, moving her fingers as though sculpting the air. Eyes slightly downcast, unfocused and internal.
People stopped looking at the art and began looking at the woman. What was happening? Was she drunk? Having a slow-motion meltdown? The air in the room became tense and thick.
Like underwater kelp, she allowed her body to gently sway back and forth, stepping forward to move ever-so-slowly across the room, all the while tenderly crafting the space around her with fluid fingertips. Her pace and reverence were reminiscent of Tai Chi, but more evocative. Each movement was graceful, flowing into the next.
And then . . . we understood.
She was a dancer, and part of her performance was to take us by surprise. One moment she was one of us, standing around, looking at the paintings on the walls—conforming to the confines of accepted physicality (sitting, standing, walking). The next, she was breaking the movement taboo. Neither sitting, standing, nor walking, but expressing, emoting through her body.
The movements themselves were simple enough, but they were affecting. They came from a deep, committed place within the dancer.
I was struck, not only by the performance itself, but also by that string of moments when people were taken aback by the simple act of a woman moving authentically. You could see in their faces that until they could categorize what was happening, they mistrusted it. Until she was officially “a dancer” in their minds, she was potentially a loose cannon for daring to step outside the confines of acceptable movement.
As we watched her perform, I noticed how sharply her physical fluidity and emotiveness contrasted our own uniform rigidity. It was then that I realized there exists an invisible tyranny over movement. An unspoken, shame-based restriction so pervasive, we don’t often think to question or challenge it.
Dance has been an important part of human ritual, healing and celebration since before the birth of the earliest civilizations. Archeologists have discovered paintings in Indian and Egyptian tombs depicting dancing figures from as far back as 3300 B.C.
While in tribal scenarios we once danced together—and still do in some parts of the world and small pockets of society—as culture has evolved, a distinct division has occurred between professional dancers, who are in effect “socially sanctioned” to move expressively, and regular folk who make jokes about having “two left feet.”
Break dancing is one notable exception, in that self-taught dancers are celebrated. But even in this scenario, it’s the most exceptional, skilled and practiced performers that are given audience. There are still parameters. Technique is required. One couldn’t simply improvise and make up for a lack of skill with feeling.
Beyond perhaps shaking their hips at a dim, crowded club here and there, most people without a background in dance feel intimidated by the idea of engaging their body in expressive movement.
Most of us who are not professional dancers have at one time been shamed—or watched others be shamed—by peers when we step outside the box of acceptable movement. The shadow of social stigmatization looms large. We fear being a joke, Elaine, in the TV series Seinfeld, who famously loved to dance but moved with embarrassing seizure-like jerks, thumbs and knees akimbo, all the while thinking she was the life of the party.
This unspoken shame and fear surrounding expressive movement prevents most people from ever experiencing the immense therapeutic benefits of dance.
Swedish researchers have shown dance to improve mood and increase mental health. It builds cardiovascular, bone and muscle strength. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing can decrease the onset of dementia, boosting immunity, memory and cognition. A Standford Study has found that movement to music creates new neural pathways by integrating several brain functions at once: kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional.
The depth of skill required to perform any kind of classical or structured dance is undeniably impressive. But many people don’t realize there exists a genre of dance which specifically celebrates the authentic movement that springs from the untrained body.
Postmodern dance emerged in the late ’60s as a reaction against the compositional constraints of modern dance. In the same way, modern dance itself once rebelled against the rigid formalism of classical ballet. The Judson Dance Theater, a collection of Greenwich Village artists, dancers and composers, rejected formalism in favor of fostering the purity of ordinary movement.
They saw beauty and value in the freshness of instinctive human self-expression, often using untrained dancers in their performances. Postmodern dance is typified by natural movement—versus learned form.
Around the turn of the last century, people like Isadora Duncan had developed a style they called “free dance”—a rejection of classical formality, which paved the way for a deepened expression of natural movement. Drawing on inspiration from classical Greek arts, folk dances, nature and natural forms, Duncan “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head.” (Barefoot Dancer: The Story of Isadora Duncan.)
Several years after my experience at the art opening, I found myself stretching on a studio floor with a dancer-friend of mine. A modern dance teacher, she had been kind enough to give me a crash course in movement. As we warmed our bodies up and felt into the space around us, she told me all about postmodern dance and the virtues of authentic movement. Hearing from a trained, professional performer that my natural, untrained physical impulses had value was nothing short of mind blowing to me.
As she stretched her hamstrings, my friend explained that, just like any art, the main purpose of contemporary dance was to develop one’s “authentic voice.” As a writer, I recognized this phrase and understood it. Authentic voice highlights the value of personality and uniqueness in making effective art. It denotes the pleasure provided by idiosyncrasy, honesty and sincerity.
To cultivate authentic voice takes experimentation, risk and practice—it’s a meditation on the power of vulnerability. Applying this idea to dance was a game-changer for me. Ultimately, developing one’s true voice in dance is not about technique, it’s about having the confidence to go deep, and to be vulnerable, allowing authenticity to shine through.
[Photo by Javier Vallhonrat]
I started in my living room. I began to play with what my body wanted to do. My dancer-friend had mentioned Bartenieff Fundamentals, a method she had studied which begins with a focus on breath, and evolves into one of the body’s extremities taking the lead in expressing itself.
It could start with a hand, a shoulder, a toe, the spine…I learned that if I waited and listened, with music playing, some part of my body always volunteered for the job. And after that, another part inevitably followed.
The goal, my friend said, was simply to become comfortable with my own patterns of authentic movement. And then to eventually build and expand upon those patterns. Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s concept of Contraction & Release (a contracting movement with each in-breath, an expansive one with each outbreath) was also a helpful touchstone to begin.
In flamenco, there is a word called, duende, the spirit of the dance. Flamenco dancers wait to start moving until they feel the duende move them. They will wait, poised while the music plays, for as long as it takes.
My first time experiencing being moved by the duende of dance was life-changing. I felt a natural rhythm take hold of me, propelling me. I wasn’t thinking at all, which felt delicious. As a writer who spends most of my creative time in my head, it felt amazing to move my focus to the body, to learn this new visceral language and communicate beyond words. My body rejoiced in its newfound freedom, and it had a lot to say. Stored emotions surfaced, flowing through me, released. It felt good to move expressively. In fact, it felt essential. I wondered how I had ever lived without it.
I started my dance practice while snowed in during the month of January, while fighting an immense depression. Without exaggeration, dance lifted me out of an epic funk and into a new exciting space of possibility. I had broken through the movement taboo and it was deeply liberating. I dare anyone to throw themselves into dancing to the full length of a song they enjoy and not feel a marked sense of uplift by the end. It’s an endorphin rush, athleticism meets creative catharsis.
Dance is a vital resource of physical health and emotional wellbeing. You don’t need to take a class to do it. Dance is for everyone. With the exception of the completely paralyzed, someone in a wheelchair can move their upper body expressively to music—there are whole dance companies created by the differently abled.
Deep, expressive movement works as emotional therapy, a physical boost and a cardiovascular workout that you won’t even know you’re doing—until the song ends and you feel how fast your heart is pounding in your chest. Even a slow song, if you work on consistent pacing and fluidity, is a major core workout.
This is an invitation to shed the shame, break the taboo, and reclaim your body’s natural joy in movement. All it takes is 5 minutes, some space, some music, and your willingness to open up to what your body wants to say.
*For some inspiration, follow my journey as an untrained dancer exploring free/postmodern dance & movement on Instagram, @taiwoodville. Special thanks to Alissa Hattman for her notes on this piece, and for Michele Ainza (my dancer-friend) for freely sharing her wisdom, knowledge and inspiration.
May 7, 2017 § 8 Comments
”When you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in.”
Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex have identified what they regard as evidence of higher consciousness.
“Consciousness is measured on a sliding scale by the diversity of the brain signals given out and ranges from wakefulness to a deep coma, normally. However, researchers have now found that when under the influence of certain drugs, that diversity range is well overstepped.” (Scientists Uncover A Higher State of Consciousness.)
By measuring magnetic fields in the brain, researchers observed a higher diversity of brain signals when on psychedelic drugs. Users of psychedelics would not be surprised at all.
Obvious though it may seem, the importance of this discovery can not be underestimated. This shows us that the spectrum of consciousness has a larger radius of possibility then previously measured.
The typical report of someone on psychedelics mirrors language of the saints & the mystics—a state in which the sacredness of life becomes self-evident. (See Parallax post: “Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss.) This bodes well for the future of humanity, since developing higher states of consciousness has pulled significant & mounting public interest. How else can we save our species from self-destruction but to awaken its higher centers, starting with our own.
Meditation is the most consistent way to access higher consciousness through creating inner space. When we step back from the constant babbling stream of our thoughts, we feel our distinct being-ness outside of the mind’s relentless parade of emotions. According to sacred texts from Vedanta to the Tao, this inner witness is our essential nature, a source of power & peace.
There’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.
When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally.
I’ve been listening to the Headspace App this month to get me back into a regular meditation routine. It’s first ten sessions are free & I invite you to just try one, because it’s meditation made easy and the benefits for me were immediate. Much easier than trying to dive right in on your own, a helpful guide.
And as Eckhart Tolle reminds us, every action can be a meditation on mindfulness:
“You can practice [witness consciousness] by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself.”
What are your favorite meditation practices?
January 2, 2017 § 6 Comments
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ~Audre Lorde
A great many New Year’s resolutions revolve around exercising self-discipline, which may in the moment yield less pleasure, but will create a better outcome in the future.
Recent research reveals that the part of the brain responsible for self-control is the same area that allows us to feel empathy.
The human brain perceives the future self as if it were a stranger.
Tests reveal that when we think about ourselves in the present, parts of our prefrontal cortex light up that remain dim when we think about a stranger—or try to imagine our future self.
“Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s point of view, and step into their shoes,” remarks science writer Ed Yong.
“Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person.” (“Self-Control Is Just Empathy For Your Future Self.”)
In the early 20th century, German philosopher, Robert Vischer, adapted the word to create the German term Einfühlung—literally “feeling into”—which was then translated into English as empathy, defined as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference.”
Research has uncovered the existence of “mirror neurons,” which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.
This is why we get caught up in the emotion of art & performance, as well as the reason we feel a twinge of discomfort when we witness someone else experiencing pain.
Some people—a case notably examined on the podcast “Invisibilia”-–have an overactive level of empathy, known as mirror-touch synesthesia, wherein they experience a debilitating level of physical empathy for any reaction witnessed in others.
“The capacity for empathy seems to be innate,”relates Jane E. Brodey, “and is evident even in other species — the adult elephant that tried to rescue a baby rhino stuck in the mud despite being charged by its mother, as recounted in “When Elephants Weep.”(“Empathy is Natural, But Nurturing it Helps.”)
Empathy is a skill that can be learned & developed. The more we practice imagining what it feels like to be in another person’s circumstance, the better we become at doing it—and at giving our future self gifts, not grief.
“Think of [it] as a kind of temporal selflessness,” notes Ed Yong. “It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”
But for all the buzz empathy is getting these days, it’s possible that its sister state, compassion, is the more constructive practice to cultivate.
Buddhist Monk & French writer, Matthieu Ricard-–known as “world’s happiest man”—reflects that while empathy can lead to emotional burnout, the mood of compassion for another being is nourishing, energizing & empowering.
The French monk details:
“The cerebral networks activated by meditation on compassion were very different from those linked to empathy. In the previous studies, people who were not trained in meditation observed a person who was seated near the scanner and received painful electric shocks in the hand. These researchers noted that a part of the brain associated with pain is activated in subjects who observe someone suffering. They suffer when they see another’s suffering.
“When I engaged in meditation on altruistic love and compassion, [the researchers] noted that the network linked to negative emotions and distress was not activated, while certain cerebral areas traditionally associated with positive emotions, with the feeling of affiliation and maternal love, for instance, were.” (From Matthieu Ricard’s book, “Altrusim: The Power of Compassion To Change Yourself & The World.”)
Empathy fatigue can breed avoidance of the distressing emotions that can accompany resonating with another’s pain, but cultivating a focus on compassion is affirming & fortifying.
“When altruistic love encounters suffering it manifests as compassion,” Ricard tells us. “This transformation is triggered by empathy, which alerts us to the fact that the other is suffering. One may say that when altruistic love passes through the prism of empathy, it becomes compassion.”
French psychologist Christophe Andre writes, “We need the gentleness and the strength of compassion. The more lucid we are about the world, the more we accept seeing it as it really is, the easier it is to accept that we cannot face all the suffering that is encountered in the course of our lives unless we have this strength and this gentleness.”
We can apply this same philosophy to those “strangers” of our future selves.
April 12, 2016 § 11 Comments
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I have noticed the same thing about the highs and lows of my emotional life: my unhappy states all seem to have a wide array of causes, while my happy, high, in-the-flow states all seem to sing the same tune, as it were. The same insights flash back at me like familiar road signs. An invisible river of energy seems to flow through me, carrying treasures on its back in the form of ideas, inspirations and connections.
Apparently I’m not alone. Author, speaker, researcher & founder of the “new existentialism” movement, Colin Wilson shares related thoughts in a fascinating recorded talk at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore:
“I began by writing this book, The Outsider, which came out in 1956. My basic interest then was the problem of certain romantics of the 19th century who had experienced tremendous feelings of ecstasy & insight, and then wondered the next morning if the whole thing had been a total illusion, so that we got this tremendously high suicide rate among the romantics.”
“I became preoccupied with this because I had had the same kind of feelings ever since I was a small boy. It wasn’t until I read Wordsworth—who talks about this time in childhood when everything seems wonderful and then how, as you get older, the shades of the prison house begin to close—that I began to see this is a problem that all human beings experience.
“What I wanted to know was: is there some fundamental gap between these moods of ecstasy and the ordinary reality of the physical world in which we live? Is it totally impossible to reconcile the two of them? In a sense, you see, I couldn’t really believe that it was so. Because whenever I experienced moods of intensity or of total relaxation I always had the same insight, as if I had gone to a kind of hilltop and seen precisely the same vision, exactly the same landscape below, which made me feel that it was, in a sense, objective. It must be solid or else it would be different every time.”
“On the other hand, in what you might call ‘the worm’s eye view’ moods, things are bad in a different way every time. And you suddenly feel that it’s only the bird’s eye views that are true. It’s the big that’s true, not the small. Close-up-ness deprives us of meaning. I’ve always felt this is the basic truth of life. Somehow you’ve got to get that trick of pulling back & seeing things through a kind of wide angle lens. As soon as you do this, you go into this state of intense optimism.”
In Zen Buddhism, the high feeling-state of satori, which literally means “to understand,” is the goal of meditation practice. A brief but clear glimpse into the awakened state of satori is known as kenshō, which translates as “seeing into one’s true nature or essence.”
This is always how it feels to me when I am in the flow & feeling good: things feel like they are back on track, as they should be, aligned, harmonious. Like Wilson, I have often wondered which state is the more accurate reflection of the nature of things; both seem to negate the validity of the other.
And I’ve come to the same conclusion as Wilson, that the low mood generally lies while the high mood informs. Although a low mood tries to paint our previous high states of awareness as the purely illusory fantasies of a fool—while portraying its own staunch negativism as the only reasonable, realistic assessment—there is another clear giveaway that hints at which of these two opposing states is more to be trusted:
a low mood feels very uncomfortable, while a high mood feels very right. In fact, it is characterized by a feeling of rightness. When we tell a lie, we feel our body contract. A sense of wrongness permeates our being to various degrees. When we say something that is keenly true, we feel that too. It’s a feeling of empowerment, harmoniousness, rightness.
In my study of this phenomenon, I have concluded that while the low mood may have something to tell me about myself or my life—revealing an uncomfortable truth that I must face in order to become who I truly want to be, (see“Navigating The Dark Night Of The Soul,”)-–there is no benefit to remaining in this place, because it becomes an energy-sapping, self-feeding loop of defeatist thinking.
Unfortunately, once we are out of step with the sensation of rightness, that high state can feel a world away. It’s helpful to remember that it is, actually, only a few flow-inducing thoughts away.
Personally, I think these two states are better described as “connected” vs. “disconnected.” Connected to what? To yourself. But how can I be disconnected from something I am? The answer can be summed up in a verse from the East Indian sacred texts, the Upanishads:
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
The bird who eats the fruit represents our worldly nature, our everyday “smaller” self. And the witnessing bird is our larger aspect (called the Atman in Vedanta, meaning soul self) which remains connected to Brahman (ultimate reality), even when the small self has lost sight of the bigger picture.
According to the Vedanta (the East Indian philosophy based on the Upanishad writings), Atman is the true self, beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. In order to attain liberation, a human being must acquire self-knowledge, which is to realize that one’s true self (Atman) is identical with the transcendent self (Brahman). (Traditionally achieved through meditation, wherein the distinction between these two selves becomes increasingly evident.)
I’m not one to care about religious dogma or what some ancient text says—unless it puts a language to experiences I have had myself already, for which we have poor working vocabulary in English language & culture.
I do think the Vedanta framework establishes a helpful concept of what is going on when we feel low, which, by my way of thinking, is essentially a state of disconnection, when we are overly identified with the “small self.”
When we are connected to our essence or greater self (which is connected to the broader sweep of larger reality), it seems we receive intuition freely, we are in sync with the rhythm of life and other people. We receive inspiration more easily, which in turn lights us up and “turns us on,” fueling our sense of optimism, curiosity & movement.
Our world seems to expand. We notice subtle “shimmers”—little beautiful moments that add to the textured richness of being alive. When we are open to these nuances, we become more easily inspired and interested. Which creates a sense of possibility & engagement.
When we are disconnected, our world seems to shrink. It is like we have run out of gas. We feel sluggish and everything takes a lot of effort to do. This induces a feeling of depression and futility, which feeds upon itself until we can feel quite locked away from that “Atman” self.
In this emotional state we seem to forget all of the insights which once gave us a sense of hope and possibility. We are entirely identified with the “bird who eats the fruits” of the world, and completely dissociated from the “sweet friend” who looks on, waiting patiently to be remembered & reclaimed.
Colin Wilson dubbed this “small self” aspect of human personality “the robot.” He elaborates in the following interview:
“We have inside us what I call The Robot, a sort of mechanical valet or servant who does things for you. So, you learn something like talking French, or driving a car, or skiing—painfully & consciously, step by step. Then the Robot takes over and does it far more efficiently than you could do it consciously.
“The Robot does all these valuable things—like talking French & so on for us. The trouble is, he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music, it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the Robot is listening to the piece of music, or going for the country walk for you. I’ve even caught him making love to my wife! This is a real problem, that the Robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.”
“The secret is to keep your energy so high that [you avoid being taken over by] the robot, who’s a bit like the thermostat on the wall, which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of as the real you. And the interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore if it’s just one degree to turn onto the Robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the Robot off.”
I have found that simply being aware of this dynamic initiates a ripple effect of more expansive feelings. Think of it as a thought experiment. I’m not advocating the removal of cynicism or discernment, only for the suspension of its mechanisms for long enough to collect the necessary data to really decide what’s what. If we decide something sounds too good to be true before launching a thorough investigation, we aren’t really giving ourselves all of the information necessary to make an assessment.
Just imagine, what if it were true that our sense of an isolated small self is not the whole picture, and, when we feel into a larger, more expansive & connected being-hood we are actually more fully embodying who we are? What if that self did have wisdom beyond our acquired knowledge & access to universal perception?
And what if there was a force of energetic support available to us, waiting for us to tune into a more expanded sense of self? What if the darkness & pain of the world is simply the result of a widespread belief in the smaller, isolated self—a collective disconnection from the expanded essence?
The only way to know for sure…is to explore it.
Unless we investigate the possibilities within ourselves & our relationship to reality with an open mind, we may never experience ourselves as we might become.
February 25, 2015 § 12 Comments
“Waiting to arrive—we’ve been here all along.” ~ Barry Spacks
At a fourth of July yard party, several years ago, a friend of a friend asked to speak with me; a soft-spoken gentleman whose penetrating blue eyes looked at once both illuminated & haunted.
He said he was a clairvoyant, and sometimes this happened—someone on “the other side” tried to get a message through him. This time it was me. Would I like to hear the message?
I LIVE for these moments! Happily, I accepted & we strolled to the far side of the lawn, away from the buzz of party conversation, to a quiet patch of grass. We sat down & he told me that a woman was speaking to him from the other side, my grandmother.
He described an image projected in black & white against a cinema screen, a classic Hollywood beauty in black lace.
He did not know me, but he was describing my grandmother, Margo, exactly—a film actress from the 1930s who was, indeed, fond of black lace.
He chuckled, saying it was funny and odd to have a spirit so insistent on getting his attention, when the message wasn’t an urgent warning of physical danger. He told me:
“She wants you to know that you don’t have to do something to be someone.”
He continued: “She says right now you think you need to do things to be someone, like they did. She says you’re hard on yourself, wanting to be more like your family, but you’re already doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You already are someone.”
What he said struck me. I got chills.
My grandfather, Eddie Albert, was a respected & successful actor, inventor, war-hero & noted humanitarian. He made a difference. Margo, too, was an actress, beloved acting teacher & cultural activist; creator of Plaza de la Rasa, a non-profit inner city arts center. These guys did stuff.
Next to their accomplishments, my blog & small book of poetry seemed a measly offering. I was constantly feeling behind, rushing to catch up; my life felt like sand in an hourglass, the whisper of its grains, a perpetual white noise.
“She says you’re a healer, but not with your hands. You heal by connecting with people, by being yourself, by giving them your energy and attention. By being. She wants you to embrace who you are and be happy with yourself. Feel peace.”
It was a powerful thing to be told by a total stranger. Whether or not you believe that he was receiving messages from my dead grandmother (which, personally, I do) it’s undeniably synchronistic that someone who knew nothing about me should feel compelled to single me out of a party and tell me exactly what I most needed to hear, sacrificing his own time with his friends, wanting nothing in return.
Since then, my personal sense of peace has deepened radically, taking root.
Those simple words restored a significant piece of my fragmented personal power. I share them with you today because I think this message applies to us all.
Our power lies in our presence, our authenticity. Not mere physical presence but intentional emotional, psychological, energetic self-inhabiting. To be fully grounded & embodied—not distracted or mentally fragmented—is the best gift we can give ourselves and each human with whom we interface, from the grocery store clerk to our best friend.
I think we can all heal through human connection, being ourselves, giving others sincere energy and attention. By being.
Living as most of us do in a capitalist, consumer-based society, we are focused on output, productivity, as a measure of personal worth. What have you done? the World seems to ask. Who are you? By which it means, what have you produced?
Now, as an artist I think creation is important; I personally do intend to leave as many thoughtful offerings as possible behind when I die, but the fixation on production can become pathological. As the Western world is famous for doing, it sets the focus on action over being.
Action is important—I’m not talking about “The Secret”-based brand of so-called human potential, where vision boards & belief trump action & hard work. I’m moving a level deeper, more primal, than the basic fact that action is eventually essential. I’m saying, underneath that truth is another truth: the truth that we are nothing without presence.
Without our essence, our awareness, we are meat & bones; zombies inhabiting the Earth, sleepwalking through life, cogs in the machine of industry, role-players, people-pleasers. Without truly inhabiting ourselves, we are lost.
And so the more I integrated focus on inhabiting my body—of being actually having meaning—the better my life got. The better I felt, and (sweet cosmic irony!) my productivity became much more inspired. Because my personal power had been restored.
This came about because I no longer felt reliant on external achievement to reflect my value. I had ceased to hang my sense of purpose & self-worth on creating something (for instance a book) that I then would desperately proffer to a faceless slew of middlemen & women, hoping—just hoping!—they might see something where I had struggled & toiled for years to create an artistic offering of value.
And then, if—wonder of wonders!—a single eye sparkled amid that slew of faceless agents at that certain-something in my writing, then still, more external acceptance awaited, a hall of doors! Would a publisher see what the agent saw? And then—miraculous fortune!—should a publisher deign to invest thousands in my Offering, would “the public” care? Would they even know?
Modern society’s emphasis on personal value based on external, acceptance-based factors, such as status & productivity, would make emotional beggars of us all.
We must reclaim ourselves.
Please don’t misunderstand. To say that merely by existing we are helping the world, on its own is the height of myopic, grotesque self-absorption & delusion. Clearly, action is both ethically & personally essential. But focusing entirely on action without first grounding in being, diminishes the return of said action.
Being must proceed doing, or we become fragmented, anxious, lost—in short, modern humans.
And I’m still totally working on several books with the intention of proffering it brazenly to a faceless slew of agents, who hold the keys to the world of publishing, who hold the moneybags & the printing presses….I’m just not waiting until all of that happens to feel that I am someone. That I’ve “arrived.” Sometimes I have to remind myself of this, but as a touchstone it works wonders. I am here. I am inhabiting my body with awareness. This matters.
When I interface with other humans, I do my best to look deeply into their eyes & see the soul behind their defenses. I try to be a good listener. I try to listen, too, within myself for what wants to be said, what seems, indeed, to need saying—my intuition on what wants to come through our exchange. Like a living radio antenna, I try to tune to the highest potential truth of the moment. Of course, I do it with varying degrees of success—but when I do it right, it works! There is a guiding flow to every moment, waiting to carry us through on its back like a wave.
Oriol Angrill Jordà, “Stellarscapes.”
If we truly lay aside our personal agendas & abstract mental focuses (as best we can) and tune into the wide open space between our molecules, the immense breathing room inside us—the breath flowing through us!—the dancing essence of aliveness in our fingertips & toes, chest, legs, arms, belly…first of all, it feels good. It’s like coming home. Second of all, we become more present & embodied, which in turn has a grounding affect on others—supporting their own self-reclamation—as well as opening us up to increased inspiration & intuition in the moment.
Focusing on being before doing fosters this embodiment. And embodiment is a very achievable goal, because all of the power to realize it lies within us, dependent on no one else.
When present within ourselves and the moment, we are more easily able feel the other, empathetically. We tune in; they feel seen, it becomes a more beautiful world, a more joyful exchange. We are living tuning forks, made of flesh, bone & a mysterious, sentient aliveness; our purpose, I believe, lies in increasing world harmony, one moment, one exchange, at a time. Let us start where we are. Here.
First, it helps to see that we have clearly already arrived.
January 1, 2015 § 15 Comments
“The journey itself is home.” ~ Basho
“The only journey is the one within.” ~ Rilke
January 1st 2015
As we move from one year to the next, we can not help but reflect upon where we’ve been & where we are going. Who we have been & who we wish to become.
The Uranus/Pluto square which began in 2012 comes to a close in 2015.
“Lives have been turned upside down,” notes astrologist Sarah Varcos, “perspectives forever shifted, circumstances reshaped beyond recognition. We have lost the things, people and places we thought we could never live without and discovered new ways of being we thought were never possible.
“Some people have been touched more deeply than others. Some in resoundingly positive ways. Others have faced what has looked and felt like devastation.
“In very basic terms Uranus is sudden, unavoidable change and Pluto is destructive and/or creative power. When these two work together shocks and surprises are guaranteed, as is rebirth from the rubble of destruction and the possibility of a new life if we rise to the challenge and steel ourselves to ride the waves and see where we finally come to rest..”
Pluto—named after the Greek god of the underworld—associated with intense growth at any cost, barreled through our lives, ripping up all false truths and shallow roots, often painfully.
“Nothing and no one has been protected from the destructively creative grace conjured by the cosmos these past few years,” notes Varcos. “The challenge for so many has been to let go and trust, to embrace the changes brought about no matter how devastating they may have felt at the time. To look into the darkness, of self, of other, of life and to recognize that within it lays the deepest wisdom, the most enduring truths.”
On a collective level, the conversation surrounding rankism & the struggle of the marginalized has deepened & broadened, rising in visibility. (“Spectors of Oppression: Human Dignity & The Meaning of Difference.) In the spirit of Pluto, it has been intense, uncomfortable & necessary.
“This past year has been about acknowledging and owning the personal and collective shadow in order to recognize that it is not some dreadful realm to be feared, rejected and denied but simply another part of ourselves to be embraced, accepted and, in doing so, brought into the wholeness of all that we are.”
This year we are asked to live the truths we’ve discovered over the past few years of struggle, not just when we feel motivated, but as a constant ongoing statement of who we are.
For me, these past few years have entailed tremendous personal loss as well as profound self-discovery & growth. I’ve found my ability to survive (and even thrive amid) these times has depended greatly on my perspective of each trial as an initiation into deepened levels of awareness. Transformation is an essential touchstone of my journey. (Self Renewal & The Art of Transformation.)
Learning to know myself, accept who I am & act as much as possible in accordance with my own authenticity has been essential (Authenticity & The False Self.)
This focus on self-reclaimation lead me to make contact with the singing center of my own being, which I came to recognize as Soul, the inner Wisdom Keeper. (Soul-Retrival.)
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people will not feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone
and as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.”
Happy New Year.
On on, brave travelers!
November 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
“You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Flow is an optimal state of consciousness where we both feel & perform our best. We all know & love the experience of being “in the zone.” As we examined in PART I, flow is a neurochemically measurable phenomenon, which can be broken down into four distinct stages (see Part 1).
But what creates this state & can we induce it?
Studies have identified multiple triggers for flow.
1. Intensely focused attention.
Producing flow requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Flow demands singular tasks & (except in cases where group flow is the goal) solitude. Multi-tasking is out. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pioneering “Flow,” says: “It is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.”
2. Clear goals.
Knowing what you’re doing & why you’re doing it. For example, a basketball player knows the rules of the game. The artist has some kind of vision, or idea of what she wants to express, before setting out on the journey of creation.
When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t waste energy wondering what it has to do next, allowing focus to stay pinned to the present moment.
3. Immediate feedback.
Where clear goals tell us what we are doing, immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. Real time consequences to our choices—whether it’s the rock-climber stumbling, or the drummer missing a beat—provides guidance to refine our attention & technique.
4. Balanced challenge/skills ration.
Csikszentmihalyi famously asserted: “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” adds: “If the task is too dull, attention disengages & action & awareness can not merge. If the task is too hard, fear starts to spike & we begin looking for ways to extricate ourselves from the situation.”
Ideally, the requirements of the task at hand should be slightly greater than the skills we bring to the table, but not too much greater.
5. High Consequences/Risk
Elevated risk levels—whether physical, social, creative or emotional—drive us home to the moment. As the body readies for fight or flight, it releases performance enhancing endorphins which are key ingredients in the neurochemical cocktail of flow.
The lives of extreme sports athletes, like rock-climbers & snowboarders, literally depend on being “in the zone.” “When pushing the limits of human performance,” Kotler notes, “the choice is stark: flow or die.” Because of this extreme demand for flow, action/adventure sports athletes have become prime test subjects for studies on flow.
However, high consequences don’t need to take the form of physical danger to trigger flow. The risk can also be social, such as public speaking, or creative, such as taking an artistic risk.
6. Rich environment.
An environment with lots of novelty, unpredictability & complexity captures our attention, inducing focus, which in turn stimulates flow.
7. Physical excercise.
In physical exercise, our body produces endorphins that contribute to the neurochemical cocktail we experience as flow. Excercise helps us get out of our heads (the second stage of flow, see part 1) & experience deep embodiment.
Steven Kotler tells the story of struggling with writer’s block for months, then clicking into a flow state while skiing. Afterwards, he went straight to his office, sat down at his chair, and proceeded to write for two weeks, finishing the book.
Mankind is hardwired to identify meaningful correspondences. So much so that we can be subject to false pattern recognition, or apophenia—the impression of a pattern or meaning where there is none, such as seeing faces in the clouds. This tendency serves us well for creativity! Seeing new patterns & connections releases pleasure-enhancing neurochemicals.
Caffeine’s effect on the brain causes increased neuron firing & facilitates dopamine flow.
Psychologists have coined the term “helper’s high” to describe the euphoric feeling—followed by a longer period of calmness—experienced after performing a kind act.
There’s evidence in brain studies of a “compassion-altruism axis.” Studies show high levels of the “bonding” hormone oxytocin in people who are very generous toward others. Kindness triggers the brain’s reward circuitry, releasing “feel-good” chemicals like dopamine & endorphins, which, when combined with a handful of the above triggers, facilitate flow.
There are also noteworthy parallels between the flow state & the mystical experience.
The disappearance of a sense of self & time, the emergence of sudden, deep insight; a feeling of becoming one with the task at hand, of being part of something larger; these are all hallmarks of the satori experience. (See Parallax’s “Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss.”)
So don’t be afraid to take a risk!
And remember: if you’re struggling at the onset of a project, you’re not failing, you’re just in the first stage of flow!
**Watch a fascinating interview with flow expert Steven Kotler here.
**Get your “flow profile” here for tips on your flow type. (Mine was very accurate!)
October 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
“In flow, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self and our sense of self-consciousness completely disappear. Time dilates.” ~Steven Kotler
“When a person invests all her psychic energy into an interaction—whether it is with another person, a boat, a mountain, or a piece of music—she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual self had been before. “ ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is that feeling of being in “the zone,” when every choice you make lands perfectly, gaining momentum & feeding itself. The musician in the groove, the surfer united with the wave. The great conversation in which you lose track of time.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who first pioneered the concept of “flow” as a study—has observed the commonality between all these states of optimal performance. Steven Kotler, author of “The Rise of Superman,” summarizes flow as a state of “near-perfect decision-making.”
Csikszentmihalyi performed the largest global happiness survey to date. “He talked to everybody that he could possibly imagine,” relays Kotler.
“From Detroit assembly line workers to Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, elderly Korean women, Navajo sheep herders, expert dancers, expert neurosurgeons. Everybody agreed that when they felt their best and were at their best, they felt flowy. Every decision, every action led perfectly, seamlessly, fluidly to the next. That’s where the term comes from.”
Neurobiolgically, it is possible to pinpoint exactly what is happening during flow states: the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates. This is the area responsible for executive functioning or self-monitering. Management of cognitive processes like the judgement of good & bad/better & best, as well a social control—like the ability to regulate urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes. We become less self-critical & more courageous.
The brain—taking up just 2% of our body weight & using 20% of our energy—is required to be extremely energy efficient. When resources are needed for concentration & attention, it performs an efficiency exchange & switches to subconscious processes, which bypass the inner critic & draws on a larger reservoir of knowledge.
During flow the brain releases a cascade of pleasure-inducing, performance-enhancing neurochemistry. Large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide & serotonin flood our system. These chemicals—the most addictive cocktail the brain can produce—have considerable impact on creativity.
“Both norepinephrine and dopamine amp up focus, boosting imaginative possibilities by helping us gather more information,” details Kotler. “They also lower signal-to-noise ratios, increasing pattern recognition or our ability to link ideas together in new ways. Anandamide, meanwhile, increases lateral thinking—meaning it expands the size of the database searched by the pattern recognition system.”
When the brain encounters the overwhelming complexity of a starry sky or a grand canyon, “reality seems to pause, if only for a second,” relates Kotler. “The conscious mind—what’s technically called the ‘explicit system’—can only hold about seven bits of information at once. This is why phone numbers are only seven digits long.
“But the subconscious mind—the ‘implicit system’—has no such limit. Thus, when we encounter overwhelming complexity, we trade conscious processing for subconscious processing.” (“The Rise of Superman.”)
Flow state can be broken down into a four stage cycle.
The first is struggle. Though it feels like the opposite of flow, this is the brainstorming stage, the period of pushing, reaching, training. Overloading the brain with information or taxing the body with new challenges.
“Most people never push this first stage far enough,” notes Kotler, “which is why they constantly miss the doorway to the flow experience.”
Relaxation is the second stage.
“This is when you take your mind off the problem entirely, taking a break, going for a walk or doing something physical,” remarks Kotler. He notes that it’s not the same as watching television or some other distraction that keeps your brain busy. “It’s about relaxing the brain so the conscious mind lets the subconscious mind take over. Many people miss this break and as a result are constantly in overload and burnout, missing flow altogether.”
The third stage is Flow—that blissful, much-sought state of being. This is the experience of optimal performance. Self & time disappear. The inner critic takes a break. Action & awareness become one. Preparation meets relaxation & expresses itself almost magically. Inspiration takes over.
Consolidation concludes the cycle. Learning & memory are amplified, synthesizing the experience of flow & folding it back into your subconscious in preparation for returning to stage one. As the feel-good neurochemicals of flow recede, it can be easy to “go on a down,” Kotler notes, which leads to an emotional reaction—& often self-sabatoge—in an attempt to regain the flow state.
“The key here is not to let this stress block the learning or reverse the results of being in flow, but to move smoothly back to the next phase of struggle and repeat the cycle.”
Part Two Coming Soon!