Saturday, November 30, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 30, 2019 - Getting All Doped Up

It’s all about feeling good, really. Joy. Undiluted, full-strength, lo-and-behold, rapture. That’s what we are meant to know and experience. It is a sacred right to be happy.

But what do we do about that right? We first have to accept it as a right. Allow me to repeat it, then: You have a sacred right to be happy. So often we are taught by society to place our own desires and happiness in second place as compared to the needs of our loved ones, of the community, and of, well, the whole world, frankly. Everyone else comes first. How’s that going for you?

Before we get into how to be happier, let’s address why. Enhanced happiness not only improves the quality of your life, it improves the quality of the lives of all those around you. At the very least, it does no additional damage. Happiness is contagious and few are immune to it.

Plus, happiness is physically healthier.

A preponderance of scientific evidence has clearly illustrated the beneficial effects of serotonin and dopamine in the body. Dopamine, is particularly famous for its effect on the brain and cellular structures. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and motivation in particular and is the reason we often refer to recreational drugs as ’dope’ because their initial effect is to make us feel good; primarily through the increasing dopamine production in our brains. But beware of achieving good brain chemistry through artificial means. It has a tendency to shut off our brain’s natural ability to produce them and requires more drugs over time to achieve the same effect.

Dopamine is a little bit more complex than just acting as a pleasure chemical. Dopamine’s bigger job is as a motivator. It motivates us to repeat our behavior because of how good it feels. When we experience enhanced dopamine levels, we naturally want more of it. One of the bigger moments for this happy little chemical is during excitement and anticipation. Looking forward to something enhances dopamine.

Sometimes I’m so busy preparing for something that I forget to be excited about it. I forget to take the time to imagine and anticipate and look forward to the feelings I will have. But that is doing my body a disservice as well as getting only half of the joy I might otherwise experience during the event itself. My brain needs time to prepare for the festivities. It’s not really looking for a surprise party. It wants to be part of the planning.

In a sense, it’s like trying to hit a golf ball without a backswing. The backswing is what gives it its power almost entirely. The backswing is what prepares us and warms up the motor of our dopamine production so that as we enter into the experience itself, our brains are fully ready to be as happy as possible.

This is ideal, because not only will you experience greater amounts of happiness, that extra dopamine flooding your body is practically a cure-all. You want as much of it as possible and as naturally-occurring as you can manage. It heals your cellular structure, positively affects your kidneys, insulin production, your digestive system and mental health.

Being happy enhances dopamine production and enhanced dopamine production makes us happier. In this case, the horse walks beside the cart.
Which is good news, because it means you can approach your happiness and your health from whichever direction is easiest for you.

If you are already happy, keep at it. Recognize that to build even more upon that happiness will  improve the quality of your life. But if you are less than happy, you can take actions that increase your dopamine levels deliberately, ultimately achieving the same result.

There are many ways to increase the volume of our positive brain juices. Gratitude is first among them. Do everything you can to find ways to be grateful. Especially in the midst of sadness or tragedy, reach for a better thought. When tragedy strikes, look for the helpers who always show up. Be grateful for them even while recognizing the realities of sorrow. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. In fact, finding reasons to be grateful, even amid tragedy, will benefit whatever challenges lay ahead in the recovery process. Get those dopamine levels as high as possible.

Your diet can greatly impact it as well. Eat more protein. Protein rich foods contain important amino acids that are crucial in the production of dopamine. It promotes deep thinking and improves our memory. Increased protein is likely the reason our distant ancestors developed larger brains. Think on that.

Eat less saturated fat, which inhibits dopamine production. Take probiotics which improve gut flora and certain bacteria that also produce dopamine.

Exercise can not only boost dopamine levels but our endorphin levels as well, which helps us move toward happiness even further. Additionally, sleep, music, meditation, and sunlight all do their part to enhance the optimum levels of good chemicals in our brain and body. These chemicals help our cells get rid of fat easier and retain fluids better, allowing them to function at their best.

Sometimes we don’t know where to turn when depression or anxiety overtake us. But we are not powerless to affect them. We are in the driver’s seat more than we realize. It is our choice to turn right or left. Take hold of the wheel.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 23, 2019 - Radical Honesty

What does it take to be honest? I mean genuine, 100 percent, truth-telling honesty as a daily life practice. Do we recognize how often we are even slightly dishonest? One study found that 60 percent of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation and told an average of two to three lies. Women were more likely to lie in order to make someone else feel good, while men lied to make themselves look good.

That gender disparity aside, for there is far too much to unpack here in that alone, let’s consider what it would take to be completely honest for that 10-minute conversation. The short answer is: practice. Primarily, self-awareness is the key. We need lots of practice to be self-aware about what we say and why we say it.

In scripture it is said that it’s not what goes into someone’s mouth which defiles them, it’s what comes out of it. How often do we think we are doing the “right thing” by fibbing or bending the truth, even in the interest of sparing someone’s feelings? I would argue that sometimes it is the right thing to do, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s very easy to justify a “white lie” when it comes to getting a birthday present we’re not so in love with, or when your wife asks you if her pants make her look fat. Being kind is always the preferred action. Temper honesty with compassion. Fib about the pants and then go get a gym membership together.

But beware, that talent to justify our untruths can bleed over into areas where we lie because it’s easier to lie when the truth, while perhaps more difficult than fibbing, is better for the situation. There’s a difference between lying and deceiving, for instance. Though the distinction may be small, it is an ethical choice overall.

If someone asks you your opinion on something, chances are it’s best to give them your honest opinion. They have asked for it, after all. But again, kindness is preferable. Don’t just drop the truth on them without concern for how it will affect them. Find a way to be fully honest without devastating them, if possible.

Yet there are times when people need a good “come to Jesus” moment, as they say. These truths are more in line with an intervention than anything else. They represent a truth which, in the best interest of the person, must be told. A recognition of an addiction problem that has gone too far or a health crisis in the making. These are truths which should be diplomatic and carefully thought out, but unvarnished nonetheless. Your love is your honesty. Speak in love. Even if tough love is what’s being called for.

Typically, I’d advise beginning with oneself when starting a new life practice. But when it comes to honesty, it’s even harder to be honest with ourselves than it is with others. So self-honesty will have to take a back seat for a while as we practice it on other people first. But the good news is that once we start being truly honest with others, self-honesty will occur on its own. You might not like all that you discover, however. But it will be okay. You will get through it. Remain steadfast and it will change your life for the better in ways that you never dreamed.

Listen to the words you use when you talk. Do you exaggerate? Try to reign it in a bit. Do you fib to make others feel better? See if there are ways to make people feel good while also being honest. Do you stretch the truth to make yourself look good? Wonder why that is so. What’s so bad about being honest about our own shortcomings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities? Provided that it’s safe to do so, for some of the more unscrupulous may use it against you, why not just admit our truth?

The truth will set you free. But that freedom comes with responsibility. We have to decide how to be honest while also causing no harm. Truth is meant to empower, not destroy. No real decision can be made without understanding all the options as they truthfully exist. Arm others with truth even when it’s difficult. Otherwise, the relationship is built upon sand and will only last so long as the lie is perpetuated. Eventually something is going to hit the fan and it won’t be pretty.

It isn’t easy to do, but try anyway. Listen to yourself and be radically curious about why you say the things you say. Is it to make your life easier, or better? Easy isn’t always so good, but better at least represents progress. Shoot for that when shooting from the hip. It’s pretty radical to be honest these days, but it’s key to the most fulfilling life possible. And, in all honesty, you deserve that.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 16, 2019 - Being the Messenger

It occurred to me, while watching a documentary about advanced mathematics recently, that there is a difference between something that has been created and something which has been revealed. Mathematicians think of mathematics as something which has always existed and is “discovered” over time rather than something which humanity has invented from scratch on its own. By what is that discovery encouraged?

Some world scripture is defined as having been “revealed”—by God, ostensibly—rather than written. This takes the authorship of the text out of human hands, which are considered transcribers rather than authors. In other words, a person may be putting pen to paper, but they claim the words are not theirs.

In modern spiritual terminology this would be referred to as channeling. Although some may take exception to the term, channeling is, by definition, what’s occurring when a person is claiming that they are transcribing ideas which do not come from them, but from something other than human, and through extra-sensory means which are not explainable. This is literally what scripture claims to be as well. They use the term revealed.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all conclude their texts to be divinely revealed. According to their own traditions, all but the Judaic laws were physically written down by human hand, even if dictated by something else. Mainstream Christians also conclude that the subsequent translations and editing processes were divinely inspired as well, allowing for the viewpoint that even deliberate attempts to alter the Bible away from God’s intent would either be thwarted or were part of the plan all along.

Mathematics is fascinating with regard to the universality of its language. Math is constant and is believed to have always existed. Mathematics is something which is and has been either discovered by, or revealed to, humanity over time, depending on your viewpoint.

Nikola Tesla believed, as Albert Einstein believed, as many of our most brilliant theoreticians, mathematicians, and scientists have believed that a large portion of their best work has simply come to them in a dream or an enhanced state of awareness. Oftentimes these discoveries occur simultaneously throughout the planet, but we learn only of those who said them out loud first. What could we infer from this?

I am a person of deep faith. I have faith that there are things going on behind the scenes, which are beyond our understanding, but are always in loving support of the progress of humanity. That is my faith. We are not alone, we are loved, and it’s all going to work out in the end. That is what I believe.

So when I think about discoveries in the areas of science or mathematics and read the words from humanity’s greatest scientific masters about how these “discoveries“ occurred, I am compelled by my faith to conclude they are part of a bigger plan. I can’t help it. I believe that an “energy” (for lack of a more generalized term), which most people refer to as God, is behind these discoveries, and as such, I find no shame in thinking them revelations. Why shouldn’t we?

For then we are, by that thought, given license to consider where else revelations are still being made without recognition, credit or awareness? I don’t think God has an ego in the way it has been described. I don’t think God is jealous or vengeful. Those are human failings which do God a disservice to ascribe to It. So we don’t always need to be aware of, and therefore proclaim, the source of our best and most loving ideas. Take the credit. If they are truly being so subtly whispered in our ear, assigning credit is obviously far secondary to the more important goal of their existence in the world. It’s better that good ideas just be out there.

So now the big question is: Does God whisper in your ear, too? My faith tells me yes. It’s a good idea to attempt to sit quietly and listen to it once in a while. Or to run with your gut instincts on something. Or to write down a good idea that suddenly comes to you while you’re in the shower. We’ve all had moments like this. What do we make of them? What do we do about them? Do we believe that revelations are only for other people? You are “other people” to someone else.

My faith tells me that the supply of water behind the tap is always there. It is our choice whether or not to turn the handle and let it flow. When in doubt, visualize just that. Visualize a faucet being turned on full and allowing a sink to fill with water glinting in a beam of sunlight from a window. Just enjoy that thought without expectation or wishes. It will flip a switch inside you. Something higher may deserve the credit for the ideas which will come, but you will still deserve the credit for being their messenger.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 10, 2019 - Choose Finesse

Navigating life is a pain in the butt, frankly. It’s an unending series of rights and lefts. Constantly trying to figure out where to place your foot next so that you don’t step in anything revolting, then track it in the house and ruin the carpet. We often mean well but make mistakes anyway. We often hurt people to whom we are attempting to show our love. And worst of all we sometimes break things our intention was to repair.

Of course practicing forgiveness is the first good idea. Both for ourselves and others. It’s important to model forgiving behavior for those from whom we will likely be asking for it one day. Don’t just pay it forward, pay it in advance. 

In the meantime, it’s best to practice finesse. The definition of the word finesse is a bit opaque. One definition I found states that it’s an “intricate and refined delicacy.” Not so clear. The word origins also add the word purity, however. And that’s a pretty good place to start.

Purity is a word that revolves largely around intent. The proverbial road to hell is not paved with good intentions as they say, it’s paved with apathy. Finesse cares about things and works toward achieving them. It has a mission to accomplish good even though it’s a skill which can, admittedly, be used both ways. The intention of the word is pure. I think the hint in there is suggesting that finesse is far more effective when used for good.

We often think of finesse in physical terms for things like exceptional skill in sports or even cooking. But more than anything else it matters for our relationships. It is a relational practice.

Finesse sometimes means turning the other cheek. It means listening honestly to people when they’re hurt and perhaps not using all their words carefully. It means always listening to their heart and only sometimes their mouth. Finesse often merits a sublimation of our ego but not our self worth. Sometimes, biting our tongue or focusing on what’s important requires us to take an extra deep breath and assume that calmness and patience will bring the best results in the end. Slow and steady wins the race. The turtle knew what it was talking about in its race with the hare. That turtle had game. 

Finesse is the art of diplomacy. It is an attentional effort. It is a recognition of the “fine-ness” of the good behaviors which others sometimes model for us and choosing to build upon them for ourselves, as a life practice. That kind of positive action has a ripple effect. Be a lighthouse of it. 

It’s a rather dramatic and sweeping word, finesse. It has a style to it even in the lettering. It has a mission. It wants to accomplish an objective with skill and deftness and grace. And it clearly wishes to be noticed for it. 

It’s fun to do things with style when you can manage it. 

Several years ago I was working with my afterschool kids setting up a zombie festival on a horribly rainy day near Halloween. As the start time approached, I was clipping stage lights to a ceiling pipe while standing on the nearly-upper rung of a 12’ tall ladder resting against the wall inside the venue where a concert was to be held. 

When the base of the ladder suddenly began to slide away from the wall on the slippery floor I instinctively grabbed the end of the pipe only to realize it was the tail end of a sprinkler. The pipe broke about six feet back and the venue began to flood. But as the ladder fell to the floor I held fast to the end of the pipe and gently lowered myself to the ground like Mary Poppins sticking the landing. That was finesse.

Perhaps that’s not the best example. But if I had fallen and truly injured myself it would’ve made the evening far more complicated and dramatic. It certainly would’ve had a longer lasting negative impact on my life rather than end up just a funny story. That’s what finesse is supposed to accomplish: As much ease as we can muster under the circumstances.

The fire department came quickly enough and with a whole team of us on site squeegeeing out the water onto Main Street we got it taken care of so quickly the laminate flooring didn’t even have time to get wrecked. Of course I don’t take credit for that with my stylish landing, but it makes for a good story.  

Allow for the possibility that all shall be well in the end if only we hold tight to our principles and practice them. Life is better if we can manage it. It’s easy to say though hard to do. But try it anyway and in whatever small ways you can manage. Learn how to choose your words carefully and and with empathy. Learn to listen honestly. Finesse takes practice just like for any athlete or chef. It is a deliberate building of our skill set toward the goal of navigating our lives with greater satisfaction and ease. Choose it for yourself.  

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 2, 2019 - Thank You for No Signal

When I switch back and forth on my television from cable to another media device I have to press a button on the remote control which says “source.“ It switches the view of what I’m watching on the screen from the signal coming from the cable box, for instance, to a signal from the DVD player.

But if the DVD player isn’t turned on when I switch it, the screen will display nothing but the words, “No Signal.“ Meaning, I’m in the right place, but there’s nothing to see here. 

Sometimes my brain is so busy that I can hardly get a word in edgewise. Things I’m worried about, things I’m happy about, things I know I have to get to, and things I’m glad I’m finished. It’s like watching a news cycle on six different media outlets all at the same time. 

Nearly every time I see the words “No Signal“ on the television screen I take a deep breath and say, “Thank you.” Sometimes I can then go several seconds without letting anything enter my mind. Eventually, it all creeps back, of course. But do I feel better about the subjects of my rumination after a bit of non-thinking than I did a few seconds before? Actually, I do.

How much time in our lives do we give ourselves to unplug? To cut the signal? Do we ever? 

I have a dear friend who appears to cherish the hyper-busyness of her mind. She claims to be powerless over it and so her coping skill is to just accept it, even brag about it a little. But I wonder if she isn’t merely tolerating it rather than truly accepting it. Being resigned to something isn’t the same as being allowing of it. It certainly isn’t the same thing as surfing it. 

After a meeting recently, I took her to a path in the woods nearby for a quiet, 15-minute session of a Japanese meditation technique called shinrin yoku which translates to “forest bathing.” It’s a simple quieting of the mind about everything except the aspects of the forest itself. The forest becomes a proxy higher power for a short time, allowing for a brief respite from input. It won’t change us overnight. But it gets a foot in the door. Keep at it. 

What harm can it do to shut off our various technologies for a little bit? I don’t like the idea that my electronic devices can determine the amount of dopamine and serotonin my brain produces. But that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s no better than being addicted to any other substance. 

As a Gen X-er, I remember the time before Internet, before voicemail, and cell phones, even pagers. We didn’t expect immediate answers to everything. We didn’t require constant stimulation in this way. I don’t think humanity has biologically changed in that regard, even if it has become accustomed to the hyper-speed of life in this Information Age. It’s the difference between wanting something and truly needing it. We may want this hyper-speed and constant input, or have been convinced to believe we want it, but that doesn’t mean we need it. Remember that it’s mostly the media and media devices which tell us how much we need them. Perhaps we should consider the source.

What is your source? Where are you getting your information and how is it making you feel? Your source can be your own personal history and the ghosts of your memory just as easily as some outside media device. What informs your happiness, or lack of it? What informs your self-identity? 

This is often why people who subscribe to a belief in a higher power tend to live longer. Because that higher power is, or becomes, one of their primary sources. That particular signal input has intrinsic value in that It connects us with something larger than ourselves. 

It doesn’t have to be a deity. This is not about advocating a belief in the traditional view of God. This is about allowing for the ‘signal/no signal’ of a purer source to be a major stakeholder in our daily lives. That higher power can be many things so long as it is comforting to you, empowering, and instills a sense of purpose and worth. Your smart phone definitely does not qualify. 

But a hiking club might. A social justice group might. A church might. Anything which expands upon your enrichment and inner peace qualifies as an appropriate higher power. If there is a God, It doesn’t care what you choose, so long as it be toward peace. 

Too much input prevents us from being able to discern the most appropriate sources for ourselves. There’s too much digital chatter telling us what to believe, how to feel, whom to vote for. We either feel desperate to know or desperate to avoid knowing. Neither option brings us peace. Change your input to ‘no signal’ once in a while and just listen. You might be surprised to find the deepest parts of you are all too eager for you to hear them. Give them a chance.