We are living in what Mark Twain called interesting times. Polls report that the majority of Americans are experiencing anxiety, depression and stress. We need to support the emergence of our “wise mind;” staying calm in the chaos is the root of wisdom in these challenging times.
There is a parable about two wolves that we may remember from our childhood. A grandfather tells his grandson that all humans have two wolves battling inside themselves. The good wolf is kind, creative, brave and ready to act when the time is right. The other wolf is greedy, judgmental, hateful and filled with fear. The grandson thinks about this and then asks, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather says, “Whichever one you feed.”
Research in mind-body medicine and positive psychology prove the point. Focusing on the positive can help keep stress in check. But more than that, it helps rewire our mind-body system for resilience, happiness and creativity.
Thinking about change as a time of breakthrough—rather than breakdown—is a basic necessity for staying calm and centered. The late Ilya Prigogine, a mathematician and physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, won a Nobel Prize in 1977 for his theory of dissipative structures. Whether we are talking about an atom or a solar system, disruption leads to re-creation. The energy released when an old system crumbles frees the energy to reconfigure at a higher level of function. That’s the image to hold in mind during these times of rapid change.
The journey from breakdown to breakthrough is a classic rite of passage comprising three parts.
Separation is where the ground beneath us gives way and uncertainty prevails.
Liminality is the time between “no longer” and “not yet.” The old system is defunct but a new one has not yet emerged. This passage is rife with both danger and opportunity. It is a time for grief, reflection, soul searching, finding allies and mentors, and working together.
Return is when the crisis passes; there is a return to an improved level of equilibrium.
The most important skills for navigating the liminal time in which we are living boil down to the care and feeding of the good wolf. Rather than triggering the fight, flight or freeze response in the brain’s amygdale, or emotional survival center, staying mindful and present brings an evolutionarily more recent part of the brain online, the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain witnesses without becoming attached and reactive. It is goal directed, clear and capable of mediating the constant internal conversation that goes on inside between the two wolves.
How can we fire up our “wise” prefrontal cortex?
Benefit finding sure beats fault finding. If we catch ourselves complaining, take a few deep breaths and focus on one thing that is good. At the very least, we are still breathing—that’s certainly a fine thing.
Installing the good. Rick Hanson, PhD, a psychologist and neuroscientist, suggests stopping for 10 to 20 seconds when something good or beautiful comes up. Dwell on it with all senses. That simple act changes our brain and begins to build up our happiness circuits.
Exercise is practically a panacea.
Eat more plants and fewer bad carbohydrates. If we make our gut bacteria happy and diverse by feeding them well, they will release the neurotransmitters of joy, equanimity and well-being.
Appreciate someone and give them a compliment that is true. Share a smile that will lift both up.
Find a dog or a cat to stroke and cuddle. Failing that, take care of a plant or two. Give it water, food, love, light. Life loves life.
As we start the new year, take a few minutes to retrospect the year that has passed, and give thanks for five things in 2016. Gratitude is the best antidote for stress.