Top Brain Expert Shares Three Trainable Skills for a Healthy, Happy Brain

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This week I had the pleasure of interview the world-renowned psychiatrist and brain expert, Dr. Dan Siegel.

Three Mind States

He shared the three elements to a healthy brain: Focused Attention, Open Awareness and Kind intention. Part of a new book he has coming out, called Aware.

Here’s my interpretation of these three mind states.

Focused Attention

Focus! I think you know what it means. If you’re reading this, and your attention is able to stay here, you’re focused. You’re in the moment and you’re able to direct your attention to where you wish it to be.

You also have the ability to move the focus of your attention. Want to try an experiment? Move your attention away from this screen to the wall or window. Notice the different colours. How does that feel? What do you notice?

You’ve used the skill of moving your focused attention. As Dan would say: "Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows."

So as you practice directing and moving your attention conscious again and again, the better your brain gets at moving your attention from one place to another.

Open Awareness

This is a beautiful state of mind. In this state, you’re open to whatever comes into your awareness. So while you’re reading this, you’d also be able to notice your bodily posture, the other sounds in the room, your breathing, a fleeting thought. You can’t focus your attention on one thing in this state - it’s more of an open, receptive way of being.

Again, there are specific areas of your brain responsible for this kind of awareness. In this state of mind, you’re open to all sorts of different possibilities rather than being caught up in one state of mind. Open awareness gives you flexibility and choice. You notice other people rather than being caught up in one focus.

Kind Intention

I’m glad Dan included this, as this is why I use the term Kindfulness so often.

Intention is everything. What’s your intention in reading this blog?

Your intention could be to learn skills to develop yourself to help others, or your intention can be to find ways to criticise my work. The same action of reading, but the intention behind it is so different.

Reflect more deeply on your intention in reading this. Do you want to learn ways to be more kinder and caring towards yourself, so you can better serve others? Or do you feel inferior and are looking for ways to improve and fix yourself perhaps? Or if you’re honest, maybe you don’t even know why you’re reading this - you just find yourself here. Or maybe it’s just for fun!

Kindfulness Develops a Healthy Way of Being

For me, being kindful (aware and kind) is my deepest intention. Of course I’m not perfect at being kindful, but that’s what’s most important. Kindful to myself and others. Why? Three reasons:

  1. Being kindful to myself and others connects me with myself and others. I become part of a bigger whole. I go from me to we. Caring feels so good to both the giver and the receiver. And has scientifically-proven benefits too.

  2. Being kindful - kind and mindful - is a very healthy body and mind state to be in. Perhaps the most resilient of them all. I can thereby better serve others.

  3. Being kindful gives my life clarity and meaning. Many researchers say how a meaningful life is a happy life.

Perhaps this resonates with you. If so, you too can make being kindful your deepest intention and a way of life!

Here’s a talk I gave on Kindfulness in Berlin a while back, for you to enjoy to finish:


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Letting Go of Fear

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One of the scariest things I ever did was to become a school teacher for teenagers. I had just completed a masters degree in Chemical Engineering in a great university, and all my friends were getting jobs in big corporates, banks or doing PhDs. They thought I was going mad!

Additionally, I’m naturally not one to be in the limelight - usually I don’t jump up speak to large groups of people - I prefer to listen, engage, learn and have fun! Not have the responsibility to teach young, energetic kids.

I still remember the lesson I had to teach with my assessor. I was being observed by my teacher trainer. I was terrified! I had to teach a group of 30 rowdy, hyperactive teenagers physics - specifically about light and lasers.

I spent hours planning the lesson. I created special worksheets for students that struggled to understand English. I had special tasks for those that found the topic too easy too. I’d planned for everything...well, almost everything.

The lesson went quite well even though I was anxious, except at the end. I was so nervous, I demonstrated how to use the laser but left it switched on - pointing towards the class! Luckily it wasn’t too powerful and no one looked directly into it! Phew!

This story shows the problem with fear.

When we fear, we start to control too much. We become rigid. We plan excessively. In that rigidity, we’re not flexible to the needs of the moment and end up making mistakes. We fail at the very thing we feared most.

In this blog, I’m going to share with you what is fear, what causes fear, the effects of fear and some ways to let go of fear.

Understanding Fear

Fear arises when your ‘fight or flight’ system is switched on. It’s activated by a part of the brain called the amygdala. Your body goes into emergency mode. Your heart pumps faster. You feel sweaty and anxious. Your ability to digest food or fight diseases reduces.

But what causes your fight and flight system to be switched on in the first place? The answer - you feel threatened.

To go back to my earlier example, I felt threatened by the teacher trainer. I thought:

‘What if the class doesn’t listen to me?’

‘What if the class goes out of control?’

‘What if I mess up the lesson and the kids just go wild?’

They are all ‘what if’ statements and they are all followed by a negative statement...and unlikely to be true too!

Fear arises when you think ‘What if…’ followed by a negative statement.

But you can think positively too. And it’s just as true.

I could have thought:

‘What if the class enjoys my class and listens to me?’

‘What if the class loves learning about lasers and thinks it’s super cool!?’

‘What if my lesson goes really well and my teacher trainer loves what I do?’

That’s a powerful way of letting go of fear. Thinking ‘What if…’ followed by something positive, that’s just as likely as the negative.

 

Switching Perspectives when things go ‘wrong’

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BUT, I hear you say, what if the negative stuff does happen? What if your class really did get bored and didn’t listen to you?!

Well, that’s fine too. I’ll explain.

If my lesson did go wrong, is it such a big deal? I am training to teach after all! I’m not supposed to be perfect. Even if all my lessons went wrong, and I failed my teacher training program, that’s ok too! I’d never have to teach a hyperactive group of teenagers again.

(As it turned out, I did really well in my teacher training, and was certified by the world’s top university in education, and went on to teach for 10 years in one of the only schools in the country that offered philosophy and meditation to all children. So my fears were very much unnecessary!)

Letting go of fear is about understanding there’s no such thing as a bad outcome. Either things go according to your wishes and that’s great. Or things don’t go to plan, and you learn from the experience and move on.

At this point, people start citing examples like what if you’ve been raped or tortured or beaten up. How is that a good thing? Obviously, I’m not saying it’s a good thing. But I’m say there’s still space there to turn that very negative experience into something that can help others. I haven’t been through these experiences so I can’t speak for them, but you can go ahead and speak to such victims and you’ll find some who’ve turned that experience into an organisation or charity to help others out of such circumstances.

There’s nothing you need to fear. Whatever happens, it’s a learning experience for you.

Story: Who put that Big, Stinky Pile of Dung on my Doorstep?

One famous story by my buddy Ajahn Brahm is the story of the truckload of dung.

What would you do if one day you woke up, and a big truckload of shit was piled up outside your home? You didn’t order it. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t do anything to cause it. But there it is - huge, smelling and steaming away outside your home.

You could complain about it. That won’t help. You could shout at it. That’s just make you lose your voice. You could grab some of it, and show it to your friends. That would probably make your friends run away.

You know what the best thing to do with a truckload of dung is? Take a shovel, and dig it into your garden. Step by step, you can put all that shit deep into the ground. Eventually all that fresh shit will be deep in the earth.

Then, you plant a tree. Or maybe you already have a tree. Here in England, we used to have a lovely apple tree at the back of our garden. If I was in India, I’d plant a nice mango tree.

All that dung turns into nutritious, fresh compost. That compost nourishes your tree, and you end up with fresh, juicy, sweet, delicious mangoes! Do you like mangoes? I think everyone does.

You turned a situation that seemed frustrating or scary into something wonderful. Even more wonderful than if you hadn’t received that lovely big pile of shit outside your home! Who would have thought you would benefit from shit - but you do!

See fear in the same way, like that shit.

Take your fear and dig it into the ground so you can enjoy decades of juicy mangoes.

Discovering the Strange Effects of Fear

One of the effects of fear is excessive control.

Are you a control freak? Or a perfectionist? Are you constantly planning? Do you have a plan A, plan B, plan C, D, E, F and G?!

When you’re overcome with fear, you think control is the answer. If you’re scared your relationship isn’t going to work out, you try to do things perfectly to ensure nothing goes wrong. You try and control your partner to ensure everything ‘goes right’. But that’s no fun for you or your partner! Let go! Go with the flow...relax.

When you plan, things always go wrong. Haven’t you noticed that? 10 years ago, I was a Physics teacher in a school in south-west London. Now I run a Mindfulness teacher training company, an author and I run a Museum of Happiness! I would never have guessed that in a zillion years!

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a few years time. Do you? So why bother planning in such detail? Plan a bit - okay. But plans are not plans - just guesses. Remember that.

The best plan - kindfulness. Which mean to be aware in each moment and be kind. That’s my plan. Be aware and be kind. To others and to myself.

Root Cause of Fear

We’ve already explored one big cause of fear - thinking negatively. Focusing on negative outcomes. And also not realising that there’s no such thing as a negative outcome - there’s just cause and effect. Things happen and you learn from them either way.

But what’s the root cause of fear?

It’s your sense of self. Me. I. My reputation. My experience. My body. ME ME ME!

Why are people so scared of giving a public talk? It’s because they are scared: what people will think of ME.

‘If I mess it up, what will they think of me?’

‘What does my partner think of me?’

‘What if my boss finds out I’m useless?’

The solution is to go from me to we.

Who cares about your reputation! Look at this image of the Dalai Lama - do you think he cares what people think of him? No! That’s how he relaxes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And i’m going to share with you some ways you can overcome your fears right away. You don’t need to buy anything else or study anything else. It’s all here. Open and free. So, here we go.

Conclusion: Ways to Let Go of Fear

1. Focus on the positive. What if + Something Positive.

See life in a positive light. Focusing on negative outcomes makes you feel scared. But focusing on positive outcomes makes you feel more at ease. Even if things don’t go according to your precious plans, it’ll all turn out fine if you make finding the positive a game. Simple, but it works!

2. Go from Me to We

The root of fear is the ‘me’. As long as there’s a separation of you and the world, there is space for fear to arise. So focus less on ‘me’ and more on ‘we’. I shared last week about the power of selflessness and the research that shows excessive focus on self is unhelpful at best, and can cause serious mental health issues at worst.

So, think we, not me. Ask ‘how can I help you?’ rather than ‘how can you help me?’
And above all, try and think less and try and be more.


The Power of Trust

  Here’s me with one of the co-founders of this  trust movement

Here’s me with one of the co-founders of this trust movement


Last week I gave two talks on Kindfulness at the Make the World Great Again Festival in Amsterdam, organised by my friend Spencer who helped us kick start our Museum of Happiness four years ago.

The idea of the festival was to be empowered to take collective action to live more consciously - change to a more ethical bank, reduce food waste, practice yoga and meditation and much more. I loved the idea of collective action to create a better world - I hope the idea spreads! In fact, we may even start a London chapter.

Whilst enjoying a street market to get some lunch before the festival started, I came across a lovely shop dedicated to spreading more trust in the world. It really opened my heart.

I immediately stepped in because I’ve always felt that trust is the heart of relationships and relationships are at the heart of what it means to be a happy and healthy human being.

What is Trust?

 A gratitude wall in the shop, celebrating trust.

A gratitude wall in the shop, celebrating trust.

Here’s a definition:

Trust

Noun - firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something:
"relations have to be built on trust"

So positive relationships are built upon belief. Belief that our friend will be reliable, truthful and do what they say they’ll do.

Trust is a belief in the good of others.

The Three Core Benefits of Trust

Professor Barbara Misztal, in her book called ‘Trust in Modern Society’, attempts to combine all notions of trust together. She points out three basic things that trust does in the lives of people:

  • It makes social life predictable

  • it creates a sense of community

  • it makes it easier for people to work together

If your social life is unpredictable, you don’t have a warm sense of community and find it hard to work together with others, perhaps trust is the cause of the issue? Either you’re not trusting others enough or perhaps you’re with a circle of people that are just not that trustworthy?

Trust and Happiness

 Description: Trust is Peace Post-It

Description: Trust is Peace Post-It

There’s a link between trust and happiness. The countries where their citizens are most trusting of each other and outsiders were found to be happier. Top of the list? The Danes of course! They trust others more. Even outsiders. And they are rewarded with the warm feeling of happiness as a result.

Trust as core to happiness isn’t surprising to me. Imagine a world where we can all fully trust each other? Our doors would be open, food would be shared, and security checks would never be needed. Relationships would flourish and joy would be a more common state of mind.  Sounds idyllic, but as we have seen, some countries are better at it than others. And I don’t see why we can’t start working on ways to increase trust. What are your thoughts?

My recent challenge with Trust

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Being in this lovely shop made me think about my own recent challenges with trust. A close friend of mine started doing things I would never have dreamed they would have done, and challenged my trust in them.

I practiced forgiveness, which I often find quite easy, but the trust hasn’t fully returned. Is that right?

Should I trust someone who has broken my trust? I think I should, and I’ll explain why.

The reason for the breakdown of trust was too much stress, an inability to cope, saying things that were not meant to be said and a lack of communication. I believe there is always reasons for people to behave the way they do. They don’t intend to harm others intentionally. This links to one of my core beliefs:

Everyone is always doing the best they can, with the level of awareness, wisdom, compassion and motivation they have at any one given time. - Shamash

So even some who’s so called ‘evil’, thinks what they are doing is right. Or feels compelled to do bad. Or just doesn’t have the compassion within them to do good.

If you believe everyone is intrinsically good, but their behaviour is bad, there is hope for them to change. And what they really need isn’t punishment, but understanding. Science seems to agree - when you look at babies, one of the core traits they have is kindness, across all cultures! They naturally want to do good and help others. It’s what has helped us survive as a human species. How sweet!

Even Charles Darwin agrees. Darwin was misquoted as saying ‘survival of the fittest’. He never said it. In fact, he believed in the opposite. Darwin said in his later work:

“For those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” - Charles Darwin

Even from an evolutionary survival perspective, being sympathetic (meaning kind or compassionate in this case), is the way to go.

This gives us hope to begin with trust. Most people are trustworthy. And if they’re not, it’s not because they’re untrustworthy at their core - they’ve just suffered their way through the journey of life and their hearts are no longer quite as open as they once were. And you too may be in that category.

Trust Story

Here’s a lovely story from our friend Ajahn Brahm on Trust, as it makes a powerful point on trust.

A woman found out her husband had lied to her.

She asked: “Should I trust him any longer? Should I just divorce him?”

Brahm asked two questions back:

“How long have you been married? And what do you do for your work?”

She answered “3 years of marriage, and a teacher of maths.”

“So, three years of marriage is roughly 1000 days and you are probably told about 20 things a day. So he’s said 20,000 statements to you and he’s lied to you once. So in terms of probably, he only lies 1 in 20.000 times. That’s maths! There’s a 20,000 to 1 chance he’s telling the truth every time he speaks to you! What do you mean you can’t trust him - that’s great odds!”

There was no reason to take away her trust in him.

Yes, people do make mistakes once in a while. Everyone does. But perhaps we need to focus more on what people do right rather than what they do wrong.

When you give trust, the other person gets better at receiving that trust and being more trustworthy. Trust grows with trust.

Failure is Allowed: The Secret to Trust-building

People make mistakes. You do and I do. Nobody’s perfect. But if you base your trust on people being perfect, how can you or I trust anyone! We can’t.

So our practice needs to be to stop controlling others so much. Allowing them the space to make mistakes. And if they are allowed to make mistakes, then they don’t get overwhelmed by fear.

Fear is the heart of the issue. When people are scared to make mistakes, they are more likely to make those very mistakes. And trust quickly breaks down.

Let’s try the opposite. Allow your friend or partner to make mistakes. Allow your children to make mistakes and learn from them. Give trust and don’t punish mistakes too much. If you punish mistakes, you generate fear and all the problems that go along with fear.

 

Trust Yourself First

To build trust in others, learn to trust yourself. By remembering you’re an imperfect and beautiful human, just like everyone else, just like the trees and grass, the flowers and rivers, you begin to feel you are good enough just the way you are. You see things as they really are. Yes you make mistakes, but you do so many things right too!

The fact that you’re reading this blog is so wonderful - you’re nourishing your mind and heart with an uplifting and important topic. In this way, you do so many good things. Trust that things will turn out for the best. And even when they go wrong, they don’t really go wrong - no matter what happens, there’s something to learn from it. If Victor Frankl could take something positive from being in a concentration camp, so can you with your life and circumstance too (Check out his book, one of the best books of all time in my opinion, Man’s Search for Meaning).

So I urge you to start today, and with yourself. Trust is an inner journey.

Wisdom on Trust

I’d like to finish this article with some of the more popular quotes on trust, from some very wise people.

Let’s start with Shakespeare:

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
― William Shakespeare

For Shakespeare, trust is a precious commodity and we need to be careful how much we give out.

Hemingway had an interesting thought about trust:

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
― Ernest Hemingway

I think he’s right. If you don’t trust, you continue to question, question, question. But perhaps open your heart slowly and see what happens. I’m a fan of kaizen - step by step let your trust in others and yourself grow.

And let’s finish with Maya Angelou

“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
― Maya Angelou

That’s perhaps the hardest of them all. Give yourself time to heal, fill your heart with love and compassion and then when you’re ready to do so, trust love one more time.

 

Having written this article, I feel much more open to trust my friend and forgive the one big mistake she made compared to the thousands of big things she did right too. If someone has broken your trust, I hope this inspires you in the same way. Let’s trust more and fear less.