How do you Play? by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D.

Quiz: Do You Play?

1. Do you consider yourself a playful person?
(1) Absolutely. Playing is essential to living.
(2) Kind of. I would like to play more but sometimes I have a hard time letting go.
(3) No way. Play is for kids. I’m not a kid and I don’t feel comfortable playing as an adult.

2. When do you play? 
(1) Often. I try to bring my sense of play to almost everything I do. If you take life too seriously it gets boring. Let's have fun.
(2) Every once in a while, with a small number of trusted people.
(3) I never play these days.

3. Do you consider your imagination to be an important part of who you are? 
(1) Yes. I am constantly dreaming up new ideas for my future and imagining exciting new horizons.
(2) Sort of. I am a practical person and so I spend most of my mindshare on reality, but occasionally I imagine or daydream about a brighter future.
(3) No. Who has time for imagination?

Add up the scores (1, 2, or 3) on the three questions and look below to learn how playful you are these days.

Do You Play? — Add It Up!

Total Score 3-4: You have retained your spirit of play in your adulthood. Feel free to read on but only if it doesn’t get in the way of your play.

Total Score 5-6: You value play but may have difficulty doing it very often. Keep reading for strategies on how to play in ways that feel comfortable to you.

Total Score 7-9: You have left play in your past, but that’s okay. It’s never too late to get it back. Let’s learn how together.

If you tend to have difficulty playing these days, you are not alone. Imagination and play often get left by the side of the road in our adult lives, not because we experience a sudden shift in values at some specific turning point, but because we become distracted by the demands of daily life. As adults we take on responsibilities and do what we must do to survive. We relegate play and imagination to the status of a spare-time activity — what people often call a “hobby” — rather than making them central to our lives. And while play and imagination may not be critical for surviving, they are imperative for living a meaningful and joyful life. After all, if you can’t use your imagination to explore your next big thing, how can you possibly get there?

Even if you played with abandon in your early years, it is possible to lose the spirit of play in adolescence as you labor under the demands of looking cool in front of peers or appearing capable or polished to parents. If you were fortunate enough to retain your spirit of play through your teens, it can still be siphoned out of your life when you enter adulthood because of the never-ending demands of daily life. Because many of us spend so little time imagining and playing, we may not know how to use our imaginations in a way that feels safe. I have heard many patients suggest that they have a hard time playing with ideas or different roles because they are afraid that they might encounter embarrassing or shameful thoughts.

The fear that delving into your imagination will open Pandora’s Box and lead you down the road to ruin is, unfortunately, all too common, but unfounded. If done properly, exploring your innermost ideas and fantasies will lead you toward redemption, not perdition. The way to cross the threshold to play is with freedom and boundaries.

Freedom and Boundaries

Your thoughts and feelings are a part of you — even the ones that you don’t like. If you feel ashamed of ideas that come to mind because they seem to reflect poorly on your moral character, remember: They are just thoughts. Regardless of whether you like your thoughts or ideas, they are in your head, not outside of it. Acting on some of your ideas may cause you and others great pain, but experiencing them in your mind cannot. Your mind is playing with ideas, and it is far healthier to explore them in your mind’s eye than to try to hold them back. Most of the time it is the repression of unwanted thoughts that causes problems, not the thoughts themselves.

So how do you get into the place where you can play without judgment but still retain the boundaries to keep you and those close to you safe from limitless indulgence? With your Play Space and Play Tools.

Your Play Space

One of the greatest ideas from childhood is the play space. Designating a room, or even part of a room, as an area for imagination and creative exploration is one of the best things you can do for a child — or for an adult, for that matter, because it gives them permission to use their imaginations within the structure of a space that is set aside expressly for that purpose. Having the authority to open your mind in a designated area gives you both the freedom to imagine and the boundaries of knowing that whatever you dream up or create does not need to be subjected to the rules of reason that govern the rest of the world.

If you are feeling stuck, consider creating a play space where you can think and imagine possibilities for yourself. You can do this in your car, on your train ride to work, or while you are making dinner. Your location is less important than your orientation. The key is giving yourself the freedom to come up with new ideas or things that you want to do or be. At the beginning, it may be useful to pick a consistent time that has a defined beginning and end so you know when you will be open to exploration and when you have to put your imagining aside and deal with the pesky nuisance of reality.

Your Play Tools

When you are young and haven’t yet learned to negotiate your world with words, which usually happens around age 2, you think in feelings and images rather than in sentences and logic. During childhood, if we are fortunate, we use lots of different tools to express ourselves. Paint, puppets, collage, blocks, colored pencils, and clay are all great play tools that can be used to stimulate and express your imagination. One of the great things about these play tools is that by using them you may be able to access ways of thinking and feeling from long ago, before words got in your way.

Take a moment and think back to your childhood. Were there certain play tools that you tended to use? What were they? Could you use them now in order to jump start your imagination about what’s next for you?

Now that you know where you want to play and what you might want to play with, go out there and just do it, Nike style! Play, play, play with abandon!

The more you open your mind to playing with new thoughts and ideas, the more comfortable you will become doing it. Your imagination is a muscle — use it or lose it. When you play, don’t worry about accomplishing or achieving anything in particular — just open your mind and let it run free.

Leave the rules at the door. Whether you like to paint, make puppets, do collage, or mold with clay, go into your play space and just play. Let your mind off its leash. You’ll be glad you did.

As for me, I’m going out to play too. I’ll catch up with you in a couple of weeks when I get back!

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.


Spirituality in the Later Years.

Prayer of St Francis

Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr.
In Falling Upward, Fr. Richard Rohr seeks to help readers understand the tasks of the two halves of life and to show them that those who have fallen, failed, or “gone down” are the only ones who understand “up.” Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling down can largely be experienced as “falling upward.”
In fact, it is not a loss but somehow actually a gain, as we have all seen with elders who have come to their fullness.

  • Explains why the second half of life can and should be full of spiritual richness
  • Offers a new view of how spiritual growth happens?loss is gain
  • Richard. Rohr is a regular contributing writer for Sojourners and Tikkun magazines

This important book explores the counterintuitive message that we grow spiritually much more by doing wrong than by doing right–a fresh way of thinking about spirituality that grows throughout life.

In the second half of the spiritual life, you are not making choices as much as you are being guided, taught, and led—which leads to “choiceless choices”: these are the things you cannot not do because of what you have become; things you do not need to do because they are just not yours to do; and things you absolutely must do because they are your destiny and your deepest desire. Your driving motives are no longer money, success, or the approval of others. You have found your sacred dance.Now your only specialness is in being absolutely ordinary and even “choiceless,” beyond the strong opinions, needs, preferences, and demands of your first half of life. You do not need your “visions” anymore; you are happily participating in God’s vision for you. . . . Our dreams of our early years have morphed into Someone Else’s dream for us. -Fr. Richard Rohr
Richard Rohr
Richard Rohr, O.F.M. is a Franciscan friar ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church in 1970. He is an internationally known inspirational speaker and has published numerous recorded talks and books. Wikipedia

Art for the Later Years.

Healthy Ageing via the Arts. A video about EngAGE produced by the James Irvine Foundation in 2011.

For Healthy Aging, a Late Act in the Footlights


Fixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.

What kind of old age will you have?

Many of us look forward to spending retirement expanding our world — traveling, trying what we never had time to do, taking classes that give us new knowledge and skills. These activities are not only desirable in themselves, they help us to live longer and healthier lives.

But they are not within everyone’s reach. Absent money and a sense of possibilities, retirement can become more time to fill with television. “We see people without money, who had very hard lives, who are not aware of their own potential,” said Maureen Kellen-Taylor, the chief operating officer of EngAGE ,a program in the Los Angeles area that provides arts and other classes for some 5,000 people — the vast majority of them low-income — living in senior apartment communities. “They just had to get through life, taking care of things, and the idea of following a dream was not on their radar screens.”

That’s why the Burbank Senior Artists Colony is remarkable. Opened in 2005, it is a mix of market-rate and low-income apartments. The building looks like an upscale hotel but is built for the arts, with studios, a video editing room, a theater and classrooms.

Residents may arrive with no previous artistic experience or skill as an artist — but artists they become. The theater group that Sally Connors participates in is working with a troupe in London, via Skype, to write and perform a soap opera. Walter Hurlburt shows his oil paintings — for sale — at the colony’s periodic art exhibitions. Residents work with students from a nearby alternative high school to do improv theater, make claymation films and art from recycled items. Suzanne Knode wrote a short movie, “Bandida,” about an elderly woman who takes the bus to rob a convenience store. Then the residents filmed it — and Ira Glass’s “This American Life” television show filmed them — and submitted the film to the Sundance Film Festival. “A pistol, a plan, and sensible shoes,” says the poster.

The Burbank colony is the showpiece of EngAGE, an organization started in 1997 by Tim Carpenter. He was working for a health care company that built primary care centers for senior citizens when he met John Huskey, a Los Angeles developer of affordable housing.

Carpenter and Huskey began to talk about how to combine what each of them was doing. They had originally contemplated establishing acute-care health centers in senior apartment buildings, but now had a different idea. “We live in a society that’s very acute-care based — we wait till someone’s sick,” Carpenter said. “We decided to try to get people to take on healthy behaviors without having to go to the doctor.”

Carpenter, who had a background in the arts, started in one of the complexes built by Huskey’s company, Meta Housing, in Duarte in 1997, by teaching writing himself. The program soon expanded to more buildings. In 2005, the Burbank colony opened — the first one in which EngAGE had a say in the design.

EngAGE now brings arts training, wellness programs like an annual Senior Olympics, and computer and other classes to 27 senior apartment buildings in the Los Angeles area, and will add another eight over the next year, including two  — in North Hollywood and Long Beach  — that, like Burbank, will be designed for the arts. The NoHo Senior Artists Colony will open in October with a 77-seat professional theater in the lobby. Burbank and the Piedmont Senior Apartments in North Hollywood have a mix of market rate and subsidized apartments, but the other 25 are all for low-income seniors. Most of the residents are living on less than $15,000 a year. They pay $400 to $800 a month for a one- or two-bedroom apartment.

Basil Alexander at an EngAGE annual Senior Olympics, a multi-generational event that allows seniors participate in competitions in wellness and the arts.Gene Schklair for EngAGEBasil Alexander at an EngAGE annual senior Olympics, a multi-generational event that allows seniors to participate in competitions in wellness and the arts.

The classes are demanding  — no one is gluing macaroni to paper plates  — and the teachers are pros, either laid-off schoolteachers or artists. The dance teacher at the Portofino Villas site in Pomona, for example, is Trina Parks, a dancer and actress who was the first seriously lethal and first African-American Bond girl  — she played Thumper in “Diamonds Are Forever.”

Carpenter calls this approach the opposite of the assisted-living model. Assisted living centers provide whatever medical care is needed. They usually have a great dining hall. There are buses to the mall and trips to see plays. “These are things that don’t help people that much,” Carpenter said.

Everyone knows that staying physically fit is important to remaining healthy in later years. (A good summary of the evidence is here.) And we know that mental fitness is also crucial.

But certain strategies are better than others. “Doing Sudoku helps the part of the brain that does Sudoku,” said Michael C. Patterson, who used to run the Staying Sharp program at AARP and now is a principal in MindRAMP, a company that advises institutions working with senior citizens on promoting brain health in aging. “You need to exercise the full brain.”

And it has to be a serious exercise, Patterson says. “Part of the process is you set a goal for yourself, and did you achieve it?” he said. “Making potholders is not going to do the trick.”

Creativity in aging is Patterson’s business, of course, but the idea is amply supported by research. (The National Center for Creative Aging is a good place to start.) One of the best all-around exercises for older adults is doing theater. The researchers Helga and Tony Noice (she is a psychologist, he is an actor) gave nine 90-minute classes to a group of adults. Some did theater training, some trained in visual arts and another group did nothing. After four weeks, the differences in cognitive function were astonishing. The theater trainees scored nearly a 60 percent increase in problem-solving ability (with visual arts, that ability declined) and the gain was sustained. The Noices believe that theater is especially good for the brain because it requires engagement on many levels  — emotional, physical and intellectual.

Not inconsequential: theater is fun and social, so people stick with it. Some of the visual arts students dropped out, but none of the actors did. “When you really get involved in a creative project, it’s physical exercise, mental stimulation, socializing, your stress goes down and it’s enjoyable  — something you will do,” said Patterson.

A study done at the University of Southern California found that more respondents in EngAGE programs reported that their health had improved in the past year, while in a control group, more people reported that their health had worsened. A study carried out by Century Housing, one of the top lenders to EngAGE’s communities, put a dollar figure on the gains. In the program, it found, 25 percent fewer people than in comparable groups needed expensive interventions such as nursing care. The savings came to about $9,000 per year per resident.

More From Fixes

Read previous contributions to this series.

EngAGE gets its money in part through fund-raising, but two-thirds of its income comes as payments from the senior complexes where it works. These buildings, in turn, stay afloat mainly through federal tax credits for low-income housing, said Huskey. The program is highly competitive, and projects are more likely to win tax credits if they have a local financial contribution  — for example, from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, or from banks, which by law must invest in their communities, including in low-income areas.

EngAGE is an important selling point for these groups, Huskey said. “They would much rather have a project that has a better story of how it’s affecting people’s lives. They want to do well by doing good.” Huskey said his company was approaching Charlotte, N.C., Austin, Tex., and Minneapolis about starting senior artist colonies in those cities. “What started out as self-serving desire to get a 15-minute head start on my competitors has become a great thing,” Huskey said.

Sally Connors thinks so.  She and her husband had five good years after his lung cancer diagnosis, and they used them to travel. After he died, Connors, a junior high science teacher, thought she would spend her time reading, walking and doing genealogical research. “I wouldn’t be going out and doing things,” she said. “I would be very bored.”

But she had a daughter in Burbank, and one day they drove by the colony. “Why don’t you live there, Mom?” her daughter said.

“I’m not an artist,” Connors replied.

“But you could be,” her daughter said.

That was five years ago. Since then, she has taken every single class EngAGE offers in the colony. She’s been in every theater performance. She had dreamed as a teenager of singing with a band — now she sang “Sentimental Journey” and “Blue Moon” with a band at a Fourth of July celebration. She wrote a two-minute screenplay, cast it, directed it, produced it and showed it as part of a film festival in the building. She’s part of the theater group working with their British counterparts, and mentors high school kids. She’s studied drawing and acrylic, watercolor and oil painting.

At 78, she does yoga twice a week and works out with a personal trainer. “I would be a lot older than I am right now if I hadn’t found this,” she said. “Definitely older mentally. I have a friend I don’t call anymore. For her everything is wrong  — I can’t do this because I’m too old. That would have been me.“

“All those years I spent thinking: ‘If I only knew then what I know now,’” said Suzanne Knode, who counts “Bandida” — her first writing ever, at 63 — as the start of a new life.   “But I said, ‘Wait a minute. I know now what I know now. And I’m still alive.”

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Benefits of Meditation

Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation

by Rick Hanson, PhD

Vieten: What exactly is contemplative neuroscience?

Hanson: Broadly defined, it’s the study of what happens in the brain when people are doing contemplative practices, how the brain changes with such practices.

Although the word contemplative sounds fancy, everyone has been contemplative – you know, looking up at the stars, going to the ocean and getting a sense of the enormity of it all, or looking into your baby’s eyes and thinking, Holy Moly, how did I get you and how did you get me? All of that is contemplative. In addition to that, all the major religions have formal contemplative practices. But people can engage in contemplative activity without framing it in terms of a relationship with God or something like that.

The contemplative tradition I know best is Buddhism. It’s also the contemplative tradition that has had the greatest crossover with Western science; much of the research on meditators has been on Buddhist meditators. Arguably, though, the majority of research has been on those who practice TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which is nested in the Hindu tradition.

The field of contemplative neuroscience is just exploding, in tandem with the explosion of knowledge about brain science in general. People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and I’d have to say science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that the brain becomes thicker. In other words, those who routinely meditate build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries (the tiny blood vessels that bring metabolic supplies such as glucose or oxygen to busy regions), which an MRI shows is measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind the forehead. It’s involved in the executive control of attention – of deliberately paying attention to something. This change makes sense because that’s what you’re doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy. So, people who routinely tune into their own bodies – through some kind of mindfulness practice – make their insula thicker, which helps them become more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it,neurons that fire together wire together.

I think of thought as immaterial information that flows through the nervous system. Buddhism teaches that the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon – or more exactly, the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon. So, if you regularly rest your mind on regrets, resentments, quarrels with others, self-reproach – you know, the voice in the back of the head yammering away about what a nobody you really are and if others only knew better, et cetera – if you rest your mind there, it will change your brain in that direction, because neurons that fire together wire together, for better or worse. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on wholesome themes, those things that are going well, what you’re grateful for, good connections you have with others, your good qualities, what you accomplish in a day, the conditions in the world that are okay, you’re going to build up neural substrates and circuits of positivity.

I find this knowledge incredibly exciting at a time when the world obviously is on the edge of the sword. The fundamental skillfulness of self-directed neuroplasticity – of deliberately lighting up neural networks of happiness, love, and wisdom, let’s say – is a great resource as we face the challenges of a world that is overheated. People are way too driven by greed, hatred, and delusions, which are the three poisons Buddhism identifies. Our caveman brains are armed with nuclear weapons.

Vieten: Even though the field of contemplative neuroscience is burgeoning – making newspaper headlines, PBS programs, and even the cover of Time magazine ­­­­­­­­– it’s still groundbreaking to understand that the relationship between our mind and our subjective experience actually has physical effects on our body and brain, effects that are dramatic and can even be enduring.

How do you define mind?

Hanson: We’re talking about things that philosophers have written and argued about for thousands of years. There is a major movement in the West these days that’s a little bit like a giant salad blender mixing together all kinds of spiritual stuff. It does help when dealing with such important topics to be clear about the words; then we know what we’re talking about.

Basically, I think of the nervous system, headquartered in the brain, as matter – and by matter, I mean energy as well. E = MC2. That is materiality broadly defined. Mind is the flow of information through that material nervous system. Immaterial information is carried – or more exactly represented – by a physical substrate of some kind or another, whether it’s the vibration of air molecules as sound waves move through them or signals traveling across the Internet or cell phone towers transmitting this teleseminar. This is not only my view but also the common way of thinking about it in neuropsychology.

In this definition of mind, with information flowing through the nervous system, it becomes clear that most of mind is outside our awareness at any given time – and actually, most of mind is forever outside our awareness. When someone does something fairly routine, like picking up a coffee cup or scratching their ear, the motor scripts buried in the brain in different places aren’t accessible to consciousness. We don’t look at our hand and say, “Okay, hand, rise.” You know what I mean? We just intend it somehow, and it works, right? That’s outside our field of awareness. So, I find one of the takeaways here is that even though we tend to privilege what we find in our field of awareness, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of all of mind.

One of the useful things we can do is use our attention. Mindful attention is something like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner that illuminates what it rests upon and sucks it into the brain. Neuroplasticity is turbocharged for whatever is in the field of focused attention. And while neurons that fire together do wire together in terms of unconscious movements of information through the nervous system, the neurons that fire in the focal field of attention, particularly sustained attention – wow! – those neurons really, really wire together. It’s how Mother Nature wants us to learn from our conscious experiences. So, the point here is to use mindful attention to rest our awareness on what is useful to us and then work skillfully to get those neurons firing together so that they wire together wholesome tendencies inside ourselves.

Vieten: You use the metaphor of a vacuum cleaner, and it occurs to me that in their everyday lives many people experience a “reverse” vacuum cleaner – rather than people directing the focus of their attention, things in their environment compel their attention. Sometimes those things are wholesome, but other times they’re not so good for us. How do you propose we work with that involuntary “sucking up” of things that are not wholesome?

Hanson: What you’re describing is our nature as animals at the top of the food chain, and it’s the product of three-and-a-half billion years of evolution – in particular, six hundred million years of the evolution of the nervous system. In that long run, those ancestors who were good at resting their attention on something benign for long periods of time – chomp! – got eaten, because they weren’t nervously scanning for shadows, slithers, snarls, and things like that. We are the great, great, great, great grandchildren of very nervous and very cranky ancestors. So, the nature of the brain is to have a monkey mind – literally.

On top of that, we live in an ADD culture. We are bombarded. I’ve seen studies that look at the number of titillating media messages a person gets a day, and the number is in the zone of thousands, if not tens of thousands. We may not consciously be aware of them, but these messages do enter our field of awareness. Now think about how many messages a day people get that play on the theme of fear. I mean, just go to the airport; every ninety seconds you get a recorded message telling you that the threat level is orange, which is scary because orange is, as we know, the color before red.

So, the combination of our biological tendency, personal history, and culture has habituated us to an incredibly dense incoming stream of media. In that larger context, it’s totally understandable that the untrained mind is continually scanning for either something to want or something to fear – in other words, for a problem to solve. That’s why, as William James said, an education of attention would be an education par excellence. If we don’t have control over that spotlight and vacuum cleaner, if it’s “stimulus bound,” to use the phrase from cognitive psychology, then we pretty much have no control over how our brain is changing over time. And that is not a good thing.

Vieten: You talk about practical neuroscience and training so that we can begin to shift that habit of mind. What are some of the ways we can begin to do that?

Hanson: First, to contextualize it, there are thousands of years of methods of attention training that work if people really do them. People sometimes describe contemplative practitioners who have a lifelong practice of hours a day as the Olympic athletes of mental training. What neuroscience has added is scientific evidence of the value in these methods, and by studying what happens in the brain when it is stably mindful, we learn targeted ways to nourish the neural substrates of attention in people who do not live in a monastery but are dodging cars in Manhattan or something like that.

For example, here’s a basic practice made of five steps, or suggestions. Anyone can do any one of these to whatever extent he or she wants. But don’t do this while driving, and if you start to feel uncomfortable, feel free to stop. You can practice these suggestions with your eyes open or closed, though it might be simpler to do with your eyes closed.

To begin, bring your awareness to the sensations of breathing. If there’s anything about paying attention to your breathing that makes you uncomfortable, which is the case for some people with a history of trauma, rest your attention instead on something you find mildly pleasant or simply neutral, such as the sensations in your feet or a phrase such as “May I be happy” or “May my family be well.”

Now, set an intention to stay with the object of your attention for the next few minutes while doing this practice. Whether it’s your breath or a phrase or anything else, set the intention in your mind to stay present with that object of attention. You could either set this intention top down by using words such as “I’m going to stay attentive here” or set your intention from the bottom up by getting a felt sense inside yourself of mindfulness.

The second step or suggestion is to relax. Take some long exhalations, longer than your inhalations, and take care to relax your tongue.

The third suggestion is to feel as safe as you reasonably can. Sometimes this can be a challenge because it can make us nervous to lower our guard, and if so, take a moment to recognize that wherever you are is probably a protected and comfortable place. Get a sense of the good people who support you in your life, as well as a sense of your own strengths that enable you to deal with whatever life brings. With this basis, explore lowering your guard and being less braced against life.

Moving on to the fourth suggestion, open to feelings of simple well-being. Without straining or forcing anything, encourage gentle feelings of happiness and gratitude. For example, forests make me happy, and I am grateful for the smell of oranges. Whatever works for you, allow a sense of positive emotion to fill you. There may well be other feelings, even negative feelings; don’t resist them. Let them come and let them go, as you keep bringing your attention back to feeling as good as you can in the moment.

The fifth suggestion is to get a sense of your awareness being like boundless space. Notice that awareness has no edges, no bounds. In a sense, it is infinite, like the sky or space. In that vast space, different experiences come and go, and you now have a panoramic sense of experiences arising and passing in the vast space of your awareness. You have a kind of bird’s-eye view of thoughts, sensations, sounds, feelings, desires, memories, whatever, coming and going in boundless, open space. Feel free to enjoy whatever is worthwhile in whatever you’re feeling.

Vieten: Thank you for that exercise.

Hanson: I have found again and again that those five simple suggestions are a great preliminary practice. It takes about five minutes, and with practice, you can actually do it in even less time because you know how to go there, how to light up those circuits and steady the mind.

I’d like to explain what happens in the brain during each of those five stages. We begin with our intention to pay attention to our breathing or whatever we’ve chosen. When we set an intention top down, we light up the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain behind the forehead where there are a lot of executive systems. I find the bottom-up form of setting an intention really interesting; that’s when we get an embodied sense, an emotionally rich sense or inclination. Setting an intention from the bottom up is very powerful because it engages the limbic system, the subcortical regions underneath the cortex, which involve emotions. It’s where we begin to have emotionally positive rewards associated with our intention.

The second suggestion is to relax. In modern life, we chronically activate our stress response, our fight-or-flight system, which is related to the sympathetic nervous system. We did evolve to handle bursts of stress, but not chronic stress, and it’s hard to be mindful when we’re stressed out because stress activates the skittery, monkey-mind tendencies in the brain. To calm that monkey-brain as it scans for tigers in the environment, so to speak, it’s important to calm down sympathetic arousal, and the way to do that is to activate the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system. This is the rest-and-digest part of the autonomic nervous system, the part that keeps us on an even keel. A great way to activate the parasympathetic system is through our exhalations, because the parasympathetic system handles exhaling. As few as three to ten long exhalations will light up the parasympathetic circuits and calm down sympathetic arousal. Similarly, because the parasympathetic system handles digestion, relaxing the tongue or the lips also helps to light up this system.

The third suggestion focuses on feeling safe. This is a very important one, although it’s often hard for people because we have what I call “paper-tiger paranoia.” Essentially, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with threats. Although that may have been a great way to pass on gene copies in Africa two million years ago, it’s a lousy way to experience quality of life in the twenty-first century. Most of us can feel safer than we normally do. I prompt people to feel as safe as they reasonably can because there is no perfect safety in life. None of us is safe from old age, disease, or death, for example, but most of us can afford to feel less guarded, less braced, and more confident in our capacities to meet life.

A sense of safety helps us with mindfulness because when we don’t feel safe, we continually scan for threats, which increases external vigilance and interferes with internal self-awareness. It’s probably no accident that in the traditional stories about the Buddha’s awakening, he has his back to the Bodhi tree. The tree “had his back.” It protected Buddha from the direction in which most lethal threats in the wild occur – from behind us – and it forced Mara and the other forces of delusion to come at the Buddha from the front, where he could deal with them.

The fourth suggestion invites a sense of well-being. To be mindful, to overcome the constant hijacking of the monkey mind, we rest our attention on one thing, such as the sensations of breathing, a loving-kindness phrase, or a prayer. To hold that focus in the field of attention requires holding it in what’s called working memory. The neural substrate of working memory has a kind of gate that is either open or closed. When it’s closed, the contents of it stay there, and what that translates to in our experience is that we maintain steadiness of mind. We are able to stay with whatever we want to pay attention to. The way the gate works is through dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tracks rewards. A steady flow of dopamine keeps the gate closed. What pops the gate open is either a drop in dopamine, when a feeling of reward falls away, or a spike in dopamine, when new and sweeter rewards are introduced, distracting us from what we were paying attention to.

So, in this practice, when you encourage feelings of well-being, you’re doing two things. You’re creating a steady flow of dopamine, which keeps the gate closed, and because you’re directing a highly rewarding flow of dopamine, you cannot get a spike of it. Those two things keep the gate of working memory closed and thereby steady the mind.

The last suggestion to regard the field of awareness as boundless space is connected to some new research that shows it activates lateral networks – circuits on the side of the head that are associated with mindful, open, spacious awareness. It moves people out of the conventional state of mind in which the circuits in the middle of the brain are busy planning, thinking about the past, using language, and engaging in abstraction, all with a strong sense of self, of me-myself-and-I. Although there’s a place for that, modern life overemphasizes the activation of these midline networks, and because neurons that fire together wire together, we get a strong buildup in those regions. So it takes training to stably activate the lateral networks. One of the ways to activate the lateral networks is through a panoramic view. There are a couple of others, such as not knowing and not needing things to make sense, but one of the easiest is cultivating a sense of boundless awareness – a bird’s-eye, panoramic view.

These five simple suggestions make up a basic practice that is based on good science. It’s a good illustration of self-directed neuroplasticity. This practice reliably stimulates the neural substrates of mindful attention, and over time, stimulating the neural substrates of mindful attention will naturally strengthen them, because neurons that fire together wire together. We can use this knowledge to build up the neural substrates of compassion, self-esteem, resilience, spiritual insight, and deep concentration. Pretty great, isn’t it?

9 Practices for Conscious Aging

As I live into my own process of aging, my worldview has been informed by the depth and insight of many great teachers. These include masters from different wisdom traditions, health care practitioners, friends facing end of life, and researchers studying the transformative nature of death, dying, and beyond.

For decades, the team at the Institute of Noetic Sciences has conducted research, created educational programs, and engaged in conversations on transformations in consciousness.

We have been led to an ever-expanding appreciation for the aging process and its transformative potentials. We also have found ourselves moved by a great calling to help reduce the suffering that so many experience. During this process, we have identified nine practices that can help people engage the fullness of their lives, each and every moment.

1. Reflect on Your Assumptions. Stop long enough to reflect on your worldview, beliefs, stereotypes, and assumptions. How might they be limiting you or holding you back? What do you need to change to reflect your highest values and most noble aspirations?

2. Reframe Your Inner Talk. Take note of your critical self-talk, bringing the inner critic into more conscious awareness to help reframe these internal messages as more positive and self-compassionate. As you invite equanimity and self-compassion, wonder and awe into your daily life, even the most mundane aspects of experience can become sacred.

3. Shift Your Perspective. Clear a space in your life that turns away from the popular media and the weapons of “mass distraction” that shape the dominant culture’s view of aging. Find opportunities to pause and ask yourself where you find joy, goodness, and connections. Write down major moments of transformation that have led you to who you are and what gives you meaning. As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.”

4. Practice Mindful Attention. Bring your attention toward greater self-awareness through simple activities such as meditation, contemplative prayer, journal writing, walks in nature, gardening with mindfulness, and somatic subtle-energy body practices. What do you need to surrender or leave behind? How can you conserve your energy for what has heart and meaning? What still needs healing or forgiveness?

5. Set Intentions. Ask yourself, “What matters most? What values do I want to adhere to?” Based on these reflections, you can craft an intentionality statement so that when challenges and opportunities arise, you will have developed an inner compass with which to navigate and make more conscious life choices.

6. Build New Habits. Challenge your brain with new learnings, explore new activities, dance often, connect with people of different generations, ask a child about his life, or do something new every day. Neuroscience offers us hope that such new habits are possible as we lay down new neural pathways that can help us see the world and ourselves in new ways. As Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

7. Find Guidance. Find a skilled teacher, a study group, and/or a social network that supports your explorations. Whether in virtual or proximal social settings, connecting with others offers a way of living into new patterns and behaviors.

8. Move from I to We. While aging is a personal process, conscious aging is more than a personal quest. It can infuse your life as you promote the transformation of your community. Altruism and compassion born of shared destiny, rather than duty or obligation, can emerge and add joy and purpose to your actions.

9. Death Makes Life Possible. An important part of positive trans-formation involves a reflection on one’s own cosmology of what happens after we die. There are many maps or worldviews on this question, revealing a wide range of viewpoints. In considering them, people can find comfort and a set of possibilities for their understanding. As people grow older, as they come to face their own mortality, they can bring greater awareness to the transformative process that allows a deeper experience of their life journey.

The Faithful Gardener

One of my heroes and mentors over the years has been Dr. Clara Pinkola Estes.

Good read
Favourite book

I read “Women Who Run With the Wolves many years ago and last night went to bed early to listen to an audio story in the series “The Dangerous OLd Woman”.

This is turning into a confession.

I don’t want to be a wimpy old woman.

Another book that was given to me by my son, Peter, is also a favourite:”The Faithful Gardener”, subtitled:  A Wise Tale about that which can Never Die..

This is what Dr.E. has written on the back cover.

” What is this faithful process of spirit and seed that touches empty ground and makes it rich again?

Its greater workings I cannot claim to understand.

I only know that in its care, what has seemed dead is dead no longer, what has seemed lost, is no longer lost, that which some have claimed impossible, is made clearly possible, and what ground is fallow is only resting- resting and waiting for the blessed seed to arrive on the wind with all Godspeed.

And it will.

A Prayer
Refuse to fall down
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
toward heaven
only you.
It is in the middle of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good
came of this,
is not yet listening.

― Clarissa Pinkola EstésThe Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die