The Battle Within - The Yin and Yang of Your Brain
"Cause you're a sky, 'cause you're a sky full of stars...I'm gonna give you my heart
'Cause you're a sky, 'cause you're a sky full of stars...'Cause you light up the path" - Chris Martin of Coldplay
There are about 100 billion neurons in your brain. Each of them connects to another via a neural pathway. On average, each neuron receives about five-thousand connections, called synapses from other neurons. (Lindon 2007) The number of possible of connections between all of these neurons is roughly 10 to the millionth power, or a 1 followed by a million zeros. In theory, this is the number of possible states your brain can achieve. For perspective, scientist estimate the number of atoms in the universe to be "only" 10 to the eightieth power.
The same brain that has evolved over time to protect us from extinction with super survival skills is also responsible for our pain and suffering. Even though the majority of us would classify our lives as good, happy, and fulfilling, our brain is programmed to initially respond counter to those thoughts. These thoughts are known as explicit memories, or memories which you can recall. For example, I felt really good after yoga. I totally remember how I felt after the class...I was sort of on cloud nine. Here is where the problem lies...our brains have a default setting that scours our entire brain for unpleasant experiences. These experiences are known as implicit memories. This is an unconscious memory based on years of accumulated "lived" experiences. It is the jest of who you are. Scientist believe our brains are like velcro when it comes to negative experiences. In other words, that stuff sticks with us...forever! Conversely, our brains are like Teflon when it comes to positive experiences...that stuff just won't stick!
It is important to know and understand that this evolutionary development is very important to our survival. It is the President and Chariman/Executive Officer (CEO) of our Central Nervous System or CNS. There is also the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who runs the Autonomic Nervous System. (ANS) The two major departments within the CNS are the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System. (PNS). The SNS is responsible for signaling all of the different parts of our mind and body to get up and get out! The PNS does the opposite, it relaxes you and comforts you. It signals you when it is OK to chill out.
The SNS and PNS are in fact a Yin and Yang duality. We need them both. It is the SNS that alerts us that even a baby shark is still a shark...that a rattlesnake is poisonous...or that a person with a knife running towards you screaming is a dangerous scenario...you too must now run! The PNS is totally the opposite. It is cool, calm and collective. It allows us to rest and digest. Both of these two systems are automatic...hence they belong to the Autonomic Nervous system.
So...where is the problem? Well, since they are automatic, we really can't control them. Remember how our brain defaults to our implicit memories...or the negative/unpleasant? Well, when these systems are out of whack...which by the way, they are defaulted to do for survival purposes, the rest of our body systems will follow suit and thus also be out of whack. Oh...and it gets worse! According to a study by Maletic et al. 2007, even a single episode of major depression can reshape circuits of your brain to make future episodes more likely. THANKS!
We have to fight back...with COMPASSION!
In a nutshell, we have to create more happiness, joy, love and positivity. Esoterically, we have to pull out weeds and plant new seeds. (implicit memories) Scientifically, we have to create new neural pathways. I like to call this, "Taking in the Good!" There are three neural systems if you will that will help us along this Pursuit of Compassion. Actions, Emotions, and Thoughts. If we can change our actions, emotions, and thoughts, then we can according to Dr. Rick Hanson and his book, "Buddha's Brain," bring happiness, love and wisdom to our lives.
This is where the REAL battle comes into play! There is an old folklore story about the two wolves that live inside each of us. The wolf of Hate and the wolf of Love. As the story goes, which ever you feed will prevail. But remember, it is so much easier to feed the wolf of Hate...it is our default setting. I liken it to getting upset almost to (and sometimes over) the tipping point when someone cuts you off on the interstate. Our first reaction more often than not is, "what a jerk!" (or some other colorful expletive!) That is is us feed the wolf of Hate. What if...the person who just cut you off was rushing to the hospital because his wife, who is in the back seat is going into labor? If you knew this...would you still think the person was a jerk? Ah...the wolf of Love! Yet another Yin/Yang battle.
Here is a very simplistic approach on "Taking in the Good." We have to change our Actions, Emotions, and Thoughts with small positive actions every day that will add up over time and build new neural structures.
ACTIONS: I had a yoga student come up to me prior to a yoga class and tell me she finally figured it out! It was her actions to others that was causing stress, not others causing her stress. Perfect! That is a clearheaded response. It is virtually impossible to change the person or thing that irritates you, that makes you mad, or causes you stress. However, you can change how YOU react to it. Sometimes called the "Second Dart" syndrome. It works like this. If I were to tell you that you were a failure who really didn't meet their true potential...you have two options. Option #1 - Strike Back! "How dare you say that to me?" "Who are you to judge me?" "You're life isn't so great either...you big loser!" (Feeding the wolf of Hate...super easy, instant gratification.) OR Option #2 - You could pause, tap into your explicit memories, rather than your implicit memories and instead of sending a "Second Dart" back at me, change you ACTIONS to that of compassion. It is nowhere near as easy. There is also a good chance there will be no instant gratification. However, you are now feeding the wolf of Love.
EMOTIONS: Our brains need to have a regulated flow of Nuerochemicals. Chief among them (for the purpose of this blog) are Serotonin, Dopamine, and Oxytocin. Serotonin regulates our mood and a deficiency can cause major depression. Dopamine controls our reward and pleasure systems and helps with our "emotional" responses. Low levels in dopamine can effect your ability to think clearly, and reeks havoc on your ability to focus and concentrate. (Think ADHD.) Oxytocin aka the kissing hormone, promotes nurturing behaviors. When we kiss someone, or are in a romantic/loving state of mind we produce oxytocin. Low levels of this neurochemical is linked to autism-spectrum disorders...as well as poor social functions and depression. We can actually think "Happy Thoughts" according to a study in the Journal of Psycharity and Neuroscience. Additionally, breathing practices and physical exercises like yoga can alter and even regulate the levels of these neurochemicals to help regulate your emotions.
THOUGHTS: Oh the thoughts..the self-doubt, the worries, unfounded conclusions. The list could go on and on. My personal opinion is that changing our thoughts is the most difficult task. We now are working on both explicit and implicit memories. However, the task is still very worthy of our attention. And...with some basic building blocks we can begin to build a practice and daily routine that will over time become very powerful and rewarding.
Start with smiling! Yep...that easy. The simple act of smiling excites several neurochemicals in our brains and we begin to feel...HAPPY! Try this. Sit in a comfortable and supportive position. Close your eyes and listen to your breath and pay attention to your thoughts. After a few minutes, put a smile on your face and notice how your thoughts change.
We can also bring change to our thoughts through meditation. There are many different styles and approaches to meditation. I believe meditation is like pizza. There really is no such thing as bad pizza, nor bad meditation. For the purpose of this article, I would highly recommend compassionate/kindness-based meditation. Meditation that will trigger neurochemicals (limbic-system) such as oxytocin (rewards/emotions) and will begin to engage your Prefrontal Cortex. (PFC) The PFC is kind of like the quarterback in your brain. It sets goals, makes plans and directs actions. It also allows and sometimes inhibits us from doing things. It works mostly on a conscious level. One of my favorite types of compassionate/kindness based mediation is Loving Kindness Meditation. (KLM) In KLM you will be meditating for...bringing love and kindness to, three different people. The first is someone who you love...who brings value to your life. The second is someone who you'd much rather slap in the face...so to speak. In other words, someone who brings strife or conflict. Perhaps the person who cut you off on the highway. :) The third person...and this might be the most difficult person...is YOU! Self-Compassion as Pema Chodron describes it above. I have added a sample of one that I really enjoy. I would highly recommend keeping a journal next to where you meditate to keep track of who you are picking as your #1 and #2 just to see what happens of the course of time. Another word of caution...if you are new to meditation, I would recommend not going for the jugular for your #2. Start small and work your way up. I went right for the biggest issue in my life and got very sick.
Another real easy compassionate-based practice is the practice of Gratitude. Mindful Yoga Therapy uses this practice with Veterans with PTSD. The simple act of taking time to be grateful for something no matter how big or small is very powerful. It too triggers all the same neurochemicals that simply and easily make you feel good! Or as is the case with Vets with PTSD...simply feel...something.
There is one person in this world who holds all the power, maybe even the greatest power over you. It is the future version of you. You have the ability to be the best you that you can be. It might not be the You...you're use to, nor the You...you once were. It is however...the You...that you are...NOW! The power is in your hands...in your control. Which wolf do you choose to feed?
You see, if we know that our brains are programmed to default to highlight negative experiences, our goal is not to suppress our negative thoughts into a deep dark place. Instead, we need to cultivate more positive experiences. Taking in the Good! We do this by practicing on a conscious level. We practice changing our Actions. We practice by changing our Emotions. We practice by changing our Thoughts. In the beginning we act happy, loving, kind, grateful, and calm. Over time, millions of new neural pathways will shape...and instead of "acting," we will simply...BE!