How to tackle stress by learning about the BRAIN (meditation the rescue)
Ever have that feeling like your heart is going to explode out of your chest and your and your mind is racing? Sweating or hands shaking? That's your amygdala, this little nugget in your brain, firing. It was designed to protect us from dangers like mammoths and lions and big foot coming to get us, but instead, it now fires whenever we feel remotely threatened or stressed out. Got a weird text from someone? it might fire. Drank too much at the party? it could fire. Think you're about to miss a deadline or are super late for an event? AMYGDALA FIRING
When that happens, our pre-frontal cortexthat makes all our rational, logical decisions, helps us concentrate, make decisions and otherwise get things done, goes offline. (It's basically our best friend and is thicker in successful people). As such, when the amygdala is firing, we feel frozen
The amygdala will tell you to binge eat to calm it down (actually). A healthier alternative is to take big, deep breaths. Breath calms down the amygdala so the pre-frontal cortex can go back online and you can logically and rationally think and make decisions again
Here's the KICKER - when you meditate regularly, your pre-frontal cortex actually thickens, while your amygdala learns how to calm the F down - it gets SMALLER and stops firing so much.
It's a stressful time of year - end of year targets, shopping, family obligations, and events. Next time you are feeling OVERWHELMED, try this little trick to get your anxiety under control. Breathe in for four counts, and then out for four counts. This will allow the amygdala to calm down so that the pre-frontal cortex can go back online.
Ask yourself: WHAT do you DESIRE?
then…You Do You! Do that.
The pendulum swings both ways - the key is finding the delicate balance of doing and non-doing... of action and stillness. Of work and play. If not, I'm sure you've had the experience of what it feels like to be pushed, flung, catapulted, or thrown back the other way - whether you've been a little TOO relaxed and end up making a mistake through inattention, or you're TOO on it and all of the sudden you can't stay awake
The doing energy, the exerting, forcing, producing, protecting, having tangible results for our efforts is all associated with the YANG energy. Our society LOVES this side of things - do more! work more! have more things on the go! run faster!
However because of this we forget the equally as important side of the energy - the YIN energy. This energy is all about just BEING, doing for the sake of PLEASURE, following our desires, receiving, and inputting energy into our beings
If you’re constantly in DOING mode, you’re going to feel out of balance. I really struggled with this, until I learned to consciously ask myself regularly, “what do I DESIRE?” and then giving myself permission to do that. It gets me into playing with the yin energy, which helps the pendulum swing the other way to keep the type A, intense side of me in check
We forget that we don’t always have to be doing - that we don’t always have to be making things happen for ourselves. That we don’t have to be crushing it all the time for results. Rather, we can follow our desires to ensure we live in a state of joy, which takes us into a flow state where things are magnetized to us instead in the most magical and synchronistic ways
Adventure excites me. I am going back to the jungle on Saturday but in the interim, I'm in my routine. I woke up, went to spin, will walk to and from home, will see my familiar law friends, drink coffee at the coffee shop I always do, and take breaks to read a book I am newly obsessed with – and yet, I'm reminded of what I heard a spiritual teacher I adore, Byron Katie, say when I saw her in SF last year: “every day is exciting because YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN”
Those words echoed to me this morning. While actual adventures to new countries and places to soak up sites we have never seen, and play with our senses and dance under a new constellation of stars is invigorating – they aren’t the only way to cultivate adventure in our lives, and in fact, the research I did found that people actually AREN'T any happier from vacationing - we only get a small boost from booking and planning the trip
Every day has the potential to be a massive adventure, because it IS. We never know what’s going to happen, and it’s in that unknown that our spirits stay free and our hearts stay open. And our spirits long to be free, and our hearts to stay open
We all long to be at peace, but also to be wild. To stay wild. Adventure keeps our wildness alive. Invigorated. Infused with magic and mystery and possibility
So I invite you today to think about why things happened today that you didn’t know were going to happen. Think about it. Even the most mundane thing. “I didn’t know I would run into person X.” “I didn’t know I would come across that article.” “I didn’t know I would eat that meal.” “I didn’t know I would get that good news.” “I didn’t know I would catch a glimmer of the clouds in the sky against the multi-colours of the trees from high above an office tower and it would take my breath away.” BOOM. Magic all around, always. xoxo
The subway was busy during the afternoon as I was coming back from court. I managed to get a seat and quickly shoved my bags underneath, awkwardly maneuvering my gym bag, yoga mat, and briefcase all together into a haphazard pile. I close my eyes for a moment. Deep inhale. Exhale.
At the next stop a senior woman in a wheelchair came on and stopped a few feet away from me. I glanced over and noticed how bundled up she was for the hint of colder autumn weather — winter coat, winter hat, and this awesome blue fleece blanket with cats on it. I could sense her spirit. She was kind. Loving. Plus I just knew she had to be open hearted with that blanket. I watched her focus to find her stop on the subway map atop the doors and then watched as her gaze unexpectedly met mine. I smiled — she smiled. I then politely looked away.
I then turned and observed everyone else down the car. They were looking down, at their phones, at the ads above their neighbour’s head, or anywhere else other than at the individuals sharing the space with them.
Witnessing the disconnection of us all, I then thought “why do we avoid connection?” I had just done it when I turned away from my new friend. We do it habitually, instinctually, and yet, it’s not our true nature. We all want to connect, at our core.
So, I chose again.
I looked back over at the woman who was now staring at me. She pointed at my tights and suggested I should be wearing snowpants given the weather. I softened and allowed myself to melt into the sweetness of connection. For our eyes to meet. To see each other. “It IS cold today I was freezing on my walk!” She moved her wheelchair toward me.
We spent the next few minutes chatting. About how I was, in fact, not in high school and a practicing lawyer, and about how she was from Newfoundland originally while I was raised in Toronto. As she neared her stop, she asked for my card — “LOVE WARRIOR?!” she laughed.
Once the bell chimed and the doors opened for her stop, she had trouble getting off. The new subways are tough to maneuver and her wheels got stuck between the platform and the car. Two guys rushed over and struggled to help her while the subway driver was yelling what to do. It was a whole kerfuffle. But the whole time she held my gaze as I stood beside her, offering my support to my new friend, and was totally upbeat “you’re my witness, lawyer!!!” she laughed as they not so gracefully unwedged her wheels from the gap. She whizzed away and I sat back down. Eyes open this time. Inhale. Exhale.
Connection! Why do we fear it? There it was. Two strangers sharing a laugh and finding our commonalities. We all need it. We all are BUILT for it — and yet we often willingly choose NOT to.
Later that week I was walking to work and was late because it was so dark in the morning and all I wanted to do was hibernate. I snoozed too many times through my alarm and once I finally peeled myself out of my bed and gathered the courage to leave the cocoon of my apartment, I was annoyed about how rainy and windy it was. Peace is always a thought away, and I knew better than to travel down into a funk so I did what I always do and asked my inner guru for help to reframe the wind, the rain, and the darkness: “help me to see this differently.”
I got onto the streetcar because it was too wet to walk. As soon as I got on a disheveled man came up to me “isn’t it nice we can still wear outfits like this at this point in October?” he said, pointing to my running shoes, bare legs and light jacket. There was the moment. Choose to connect or choose to look away. Choose love or choose fear.
I smiled. “YES. It IS amazing!” He replied, “enjoy it. The cold is coming in fast.” Perception changed through connection: no longer was I hung up on the rain, but rather found myself grateful it was still warm enough that I didn’t have to bundle up.
We then got talking about how he was going to meet the cable company because his cable got cut off for failure to pay because he lost his job.. In that moment, he needed the moment of connection too — someone to listen and SEE him and tell him it was okay. He got off at the next stop.
As always, magic, love and connection are always available, we just have to choose it. We forget. We forget that we’re all just dancing through the life game together, at the same time. We forget to connect. We forget that we’re all one. That’s the choice — choose connection or choose fear. What do you choose?
“You teach other people how to treat you”
I was meandering the street of Mykonos, Greece by myself after having just watched the sun go down in a swarm of people, selfie-sticks in hand ready to capture the moment, and had a dance of what I should do versus what I wanted to do.
What I really wanted to do was go back to my hotel and dress up and go out for a beautiful dinner. Mykonos has some gorgeous restaurants that in the comfort of my apartment I had diligently been researching on Trip Advisor prior to my trip, ensuring that my hotel was walking distance to those that I wanted to experience.
Then I got stuck.
As my first evening there approached, all my mind wanted me to do was stay in my day clothes and just have a gyro in a casual shop hidden in a twisted road and call it a day because I was alone.
It was the normal thing to do, I thought. Mykonos is an electric town vibrating with the energy of groups of friends and the romance of couples. I had been around it all day, but I was immersed in my book and the ocean and didn’t mind. However as the evening neared and the possibilities for my evening plans began to reveal themselves, my mind said it would be too uncomfortable to show up without any of my day time distractions in a restaurant buzzing with that type of energy and connection around me, and yet to be an outsider —
To really allow myself to witness my aloneness, deeply
Then I remembered what my beautiful friend Lori Harder taught at her workshop in LA last winter that always resonated with me “you teach people how to treat you.”
In that moment I had the choice — to choose fear and listen to my mind’s story about how alone I would feel in the image my mind flashed for me of all the tables of couples and groups around me laughing and chatting and clinking champagne glasses over candlelight — or to choose love. To choose to trust what my heart wanted to do, and to lean into where the deeper, wiser, most loving part of me was guiding me
And so I did it. I showed up for myself. My true self. My higher self. I took myself out for a delicious dinner. I dressed up for myself. I wore my most beautiful jewellery. I sat with myself in a fancy restaurant. I absorbed my food with all of my senses. I spent time with myself. I showed up for the other people at the restaurant who were not so sureptitiously glancing at me and questioning why a person would be alone at a restaurant in a state peace without a companion, even though I watched many be glued to their iPhone screens despite sitting across from one another.
I did it because I knew we always have a choice: to choose love or to choose fear, and I know to choose love. To trust the mind or trust the heart.
I did it because I LOVE gorgeous dinners out and dressing up, and how could I put the pressure upon or call forth a partner who makes me feel this way and does these things with me without embodying it first? How could I expect another person to show up for me in such a powerful way if I couldn’t show up for myself first? And while I’ve had partners that have done this in the past, why wait to have these experiences until they’re here?
It’s up to us to be the light, for ourselves and then for others. As we do, others observe. As we are, others are inspired. Keep shining, love warriors
I ran the half marathon this past weekend. I was only able to run it because I decided to call bullshit on the story that I was bad at running, that I didn’t enjoy running, or that I was better on the yoga mat. The truth is, it was just another story.
Is there a story you’re ready to call bullshit on? To see it for what it is: just another story. The beauty in seeing the story is to see that it can be rewritten at any time. We always have the power to choose again.
Here's the truth - our minds are constantly telling us stories about our lives. It labels everything we see: "that's a bed", "that's the building I work in", "that person is my mother”. In the same way we see an object and our mind labels it, it perceives every other experience in our life and creates a story around it. Sometimes our stories can serve us, but other times they are hinder our growth, keep us stuck, and close us off from true connection and happiness.
One of my favourite ways to get started in figuring out where we’ve created a story is to look back at our younger selves.
Maybe the ten year old version of you used to unapologetically hit the dance floor. Maybe the ten year old version of you was always kind to people, no matter their age or background. Maybe the ten year old version of you loved to hug. Maybe the ten year old version of you was obsessed with writing. Maybe the ten year old version of you loved to go camping.
Are you no longer doing that thing? What would the ten year old version of you have to say about that?
Once you’ve determined what story you’ve created around something that used to come naturally to you and make you happy, choose to rewrite the story. I actually write out the new version of the story on a piece of paper in my journal because I think it triggers the mind to acknowledge the new possibility and pay attention to opportunities that align with the new story.
My new story was “I am good at running. I like running outdoors.”
Then, take action. Commit to doing that thing, even if just once. Could you commit to doing it once this month? What about by the end of the year? Tiny, incremental steps are how we actually make significant shifts in our life. You may want to share this commitment with a friend for accountability. I’m pretty sure I said to some of my friends “I’m becoming a runner!” but had no idea what that would actually look like.
Then watch as other opportunities arise that help you live your new story pop up, and choose to say yes to them. I see it all the time. Once you’ve rewritten the story, you’ll be given tests or chances to choose again – to choose whether you are going to sink back into the old story or choose to embrace the new one.
For me, the organization I volunteered with had a group that was walking the half marathon and asked me to join. At that point, I had worked my way up to running 10km, but I decided that if I was going to walk the half marathon I might as well try and run it since I had been running. I had the chance to choose the blast through a few stories - I called bullshit on the story that in order to run a half marathon I would have to train diligently for months, that I wasn’t a strong enough runner to run a race, and that I only ran when the weather was beautiful (it rained).
Let me know what story you’re ready to call bullshit on. You got this.
Canadian Thanksgiving just passed. This means that many people, at some point over the last weekend, expressed gratitude for at least one thing in their life. In our day to day, however, we often miss the opportunity to take the chance to tune into the present moment and think about what we are grateful for in our lives. Why start a daily gratitude practice?
Firstly, science shows that gratitude has the following benefits:
1. It can act as a natural mood booster and antidepressant because as we ask ourselves what we are grateful for, our brain produces more of the “feel good” chemicals, dopamine and serotonin;
2. It is linked to leading to other positive emotions including contentment, happiness, pride and hope;
3. It gives you a stronger immune system;
4. It lowers your blood pressure;
5. It strengthens social bonds and friendships, making those who practice it feel more loved and cared for by others;
6. It improves sleep quality;
7. It can make you a better in maintaining a relationship. Those who express gratitude to their partners were better able and more likely to work through difficulties in the relationship.
Secondly, in my experience, gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It illuminates all of the incredible, tiny elements that weave together to comprise our own unique tapestry of the human experience. The more that we focus our mind on all that we have in our lives, the more it seems like we have to be grateful for. Gratitude can change your perspective on your life, which is key to living with greater happiness and satisfaction.
I started a gratitude practice, which is where I write down three things I’m grateful for each morning, after I read that Oprah said that it was her favourite practice and I believe in adopting practices of those you admire. At first I was always grateful for the basics: that I had a roof over my head, that I was healthy, that I lived in a city where I felt safe, and that I could afford food. Over time, as the practice deepened, a new vista of things to be grateful seemed to appear before me.
I started to become grateful for specific past experiences, like eating a meal at a restaurant I love that embodies understated elegance, moments on trips that I have taken that cracked my heart open, times I spent with my girlfriends sitting on the floors of our living rooms drinking wine and laughing, or for the quiet moments I spent on my dock reading in the summer. Later, I noticed I was becoming grateful for things like my lungs for helping me breathe, that I have two legs that can walk, for the pillow that props up my back when I write, or for the richness of the colours on the painting on my wall.
Eventually I was feeling grateful for small moments throughout the day. I would be walking to work and I would see a six-year-old kid proudly wearing the most awesome light up sneakers, which would make me smile and set up my whole day, or I would be running late for a meeting and someone in the elevator would crack a joke and it would deflate my nerves. Gratitude started to colour my entire day, and as a result, my days felt richer.
If you are ready to get started, I recommend the following:
Write it down: in a journal, on your phone, or in an app like the 5 minute journal
Be consistent: neuroplasticity teaches us that our brains are able to rewire its neural pathways. The more that you practice gratitude, the stronger the circuitry of your brain that feels gratitude will become and therefore the more it will activate.
Share it: even if your practice starts privately, try expressing gratitude to those people who you feel grateful for. Sharing gratitude is a way to foster genuine connection between individuals.
Emmons, RA, and McCullough, ME, (2003), Counting Blessing Versus Burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003 Feb, 84(1): 377–89
Fox, Kaplan, Damasio and Damasion, (2015), Neural Correlates of Gratitude, Frontiers in Psychology 2015 Sept, 30: 6, 149
Lambert, Nathaniel M.; Fincham, Frank D. (2011), Expressing gratitude to a partner leads to more relationship maintenance behavior. Emotion, Vol 11(1), Feb 2011, 52–60.
McCraty R, Atkinson M, Tiller WA, Rein G, Watkins AD, (1995), The Effects of Emotions on Short-Term Power Spectrum Analysis of Heart Rate Variability, American Journal of Cardiology, 1995 Nov 15, 76(14): 1089–93
Overvalle, Merivielde & De Schuyter, (1995), Structural Modeling of the Relationship Between Attributional Dimensions, Emotions, and Performance of College Freshmen. Cognition & Emotion, 9, 59–85.