Monthly Archives: March 2009

Wired For The Joy Of Excelling

An article in the Wall Street Journal tells of a doctor who counsels a patient in extreme physical pain, “I think your real problem is stress.” When the patient complains that the muscle injections the doctor has been giving him hasn’t relieved his neck and shoulder pain, the doctor says, “You can’t blame me for everything that’s hard in your life.” The patient bursts into tears, which only confirms his doctor’s diagnosis. The doctor suggests exercise as a means of mitigating his patient’s level of stress. (for the Wall Street Journal article, go to )

The Amygdala: Wired for Stress, Wired for Fear
The reason someone becomes as chronically debilitated by stress as the person in the news article is because his brain is wired for stress. His brain is repeatedly hijacked by the amygdala, the brain’s fear center that engineers fight or flight. The primary trigger for most of our 21st century stress reactions is not real and present danger, such as a wild animal; it is fearful thinking. Fearful thinking stirs up anxious, negative emotions, which in turn generates a perception of threat, often where no real threat exists. The problem is the amygdala can’t decipher between a real and mind-made danger. It sets off a reaction in either case.Emotional Memory: Trapped in the PastThe amygdala also is the storehouse for emotional memory. Emotional memory is video clips of all the bad things that have happened to us. A brain under stress is prone to project these painful images from the past onto the screen of the present, exciting visions of a future that looks even worse. The frightening picture it paints seem real enough that it has us walking the floor late at night — night after night — ruminating over problems for which we see no solution. During the day, our sleep-deprived mind can erupt suddenly or withdraw precipitously, either of which can damage relationships.
When the amygdala is triggered, it takes charge of our physiology. In some situations, it freezes the body, which explains the tight neck and shoulders of the person in the article. Other times, it sends body and emotions into an uproar, which over the long haul can lead to a massive heart attack. Many heart attacks can be traced back to a long run of thought attacks. Surveys by Gallup and the American Psychological Association reveal that eight in ten American struggle with stress, half of whom are stymied by extreme levels of stress. Lower brain function is running these people’s lives, making a mess of things. Sending our stressed-out brain to the gym for a good workout is a good thing. It can flush out stress hormones and relieve symptoms for a while. But it isn’t a cure. It won’t fix the way we’re wired.
Rewiring Ourselves for the Joy of Excelling
Take heart. There is a cure. Neuroscience has discovered that we can literally rewire a brain that genetics and a painful past wires for stress. In the absence of chronic stress reactions, a flow of intelligence gradually emerges and takes hold. Higher order neural circuits light-up, stimulating the joy of excelling. The process of rewiring is accomplished through a fundamental shift in attitude that takes us from fear and stress to a dynamic quality of inner peace. There is no greater gain in brain function that the shift from fear to peace. Mercifully, this essential shift in attitude is something anyone can make. Positive change comes in a matter of weeks.
I wrote a book on the subject, called Mystic Cool, which Simon & Schuster/Beyond Words is releasing April 14, 2009.

The One Thing That Makes Everything Work

Say you are at peace; dynamically at peace. Your mind is lit up. It is open to experience and spacious. It’s clear and quiet instead of pointlessly preoccupied with stressful thinking. This dynamically peaceful mind is naturally generating a friendly attitude in you instead of one that is contentious. It makes you flexible and creative instead of rigid. Then let’s say that neuroscience slides you under an f-MRI or attaches your head to an EEG or connects your brain to some other high tech instrument. What they would find is expanded networks that generate higher order brain function.

These networks would be larger and more fully integrated than brain scans show on the average person, with increased blood flow to the region.

There would be a high level of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the seat of positive emotion. This means that, in your brain, positive emotion had swamped negative emotion. Emotional negativity wouldn’t stand a chance in your brain.

There would be greater activation in brain regions called the right insula and caudate, a network that underlies empathy and maternal love. This indicates a loving, understanding brain. It’s the brain you want in your spouse, your best friend, your boss, and the brain you want to parent your children.

Gamma Wave activity — signaling higher mental activity like problem solving, creativity and error detection—would also be high.

This highly developed neural circuitry would generate in you a flow of intelligence that was emotionally peaceful and positive, producing a fearlessly self-confident attitude with a clear sense of purpose, all of which would make you immune to stress.

This represents a brain operating at its absolute best. This is a person capable, not only of attaining, but sustaining peak performance. Work would not besiege and discourage such a person. For them, the research shows, work is an intrinsically rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Neuroscience has established that all these benefits are produced by a dynamically peaceful attitude. Peace is the threshold to the experience researchers in human performance call flow. Flow is the joy of excelling that we sometimes experience when we slip past stress and anxiety and enter that wonderful zone, where the full power of our skill, knowledge and ability come into play. The usual storm of demands, pressures, and doubts may have be present at the outset, but by subtle twists and turns, we manage to slip past the storm and locate the eye, where the pressure to produce becomes the challenge to excel. The only stress we feel is the desire to stretch ourselves.

As we settled in, an effortless flow of intelligence takes over, sweeping us along in its current. Time stands still. Pieces fall effortlessly into place, as if the dots are connecting themselves. At some point, our brain and mind harmonize to generate our own brand of genius that is capable of hitting a target no one else can see. Working in this way does not feel like work at all. Rather, it is a rewarding labor of love. It produces “a deep sense of enjoyment that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like,” as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the father of positive psychology, stated.

Here is a simple way of establishing this sense of flow as you approach work:

Sit calmly for a moment before beginning the task. Recall the basic fact that at a mind at peace is a brain working at its absolute best. Let go of any anxiety or tension and be at peace. Feel your brain light up with power and energy to give you everything you will need to succeed. Next, just for a moment, feel the simple joy of being alive. Feel gratitude for the creative gifts you possess, which each new challenge invites you to realize and increase. See the task before as an opportunity to stretch your creative wings. Now bring to mind your goal for the task or project. Feel how the simple sense of joy and gratitude merges with your goal to inspire you with the enthusiasm to excel. Place your faith in your peaceful, joyful attitude. Imagine it forms an arrow headed straight for the bull’s eye. As you step to the task, let go of the outcome and trust the process … completely.

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