Author Archives: breathenews

How sugar damages our body and mind

Sugar

I’ll probably get into a lot of trouble for writing this article. In the last 12 months I’ve worked for a major sugar company and live half the year in North Queensland, an area heavily dependent on the sugar industry.   So what I am about to say probably won’t do my business interests much good in Townsville but here goes.

It’s well known that excess dietary fructose can harm your body by setting up the conditions for diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver, but what’s less appreciated is the damage that it does to your brain

How sugar makes your brain work less efficiently 

connectome

The brain is a wonderful thing. I love my brain. I like it that it can make me cheeky, make me feel loved, make me love others, recall happy times and experience the beauty of the world around me. Maybe if my body didn’t work so well I would still have a brain that could love and experience the world. And therefore I want to honour my brain and make sure that it works well until its time for me to die.

It turns out that consuming excess sugar has a significant detrimental effect on the way our brains work.

 How we become addicted to sugar

Neuroscientist Jordan Gaines Lewis explains ; When a person consumes sugar, just like any food, it activates the tongue’s taste receptors. Then, signals are sent to the brain, lighting up reward pathways and causing a surge of feel-good hormones, like dopamine, to be released. Sugar “hijacks the brain’s reward pathway,”

Stimulating the brain’s reward system with a piece of chocolate now and then is pleasurable and probably harmless, however when the reward system is activated excessively and too frequently, we develop craving and sugar addiction.  Check out TED video on sugar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEXBxijQREo

A high sugar diet may impair memory and learning

 A new UCLA study published in the Journal of Physiology is the first to show how a steady diet high in fructose can damage your memory and learning. Researchers investigated the effects of high-fructose syrup, similar to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheap sweetener six times sweeter than cane sugar, which is used in most  soft drinks and processed foods.  The team sought to study the effects of a steady intake of a concentrated form of fructose. They fed rats a fructose solution as drinking water for six weeks, then tested their ability to remember their way out of a maze. The results were dramatic.

 The rats fed fructose syrup showed significant impairment in their cognitive abilities—they struggled to remember their way out of the maze. They were slower, and their brains showed a decline in synaptic activity. Their brain cells had trouble signaling each other, disrupting the rats’ ability to think clearly and recall the route they’d learned six weeks earlier.  Additionally, the fructose-fed rats showed signs of resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls your blood sugar and synaptic function in your brain.

Because insulin is able to pass through your blood-brain barrier, it can trigger neurological processes that are important for learning and memory. Consuming large amounts of fructose may block insulin’s ability to regulate how your brain cells store and use sugar for the energy needed to fuel thoughts and emotions.

Researchers concluded that a high fructose diet harms your brain, as well as the rest of your body. Clearly more research is required but the early indication is that we should cut our sugar intake dramatically.

There is some good news emerging from the study however. A second group of rats was given omega-3 fatty acids in the form of flaxseed oil and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), in addition to the high fructose diet. After six weeks, this group of rats was able to navigate the maze better and faster than the rats in the non-DHA group.  The researchers concluded that DHA is protective against fructose’s harmful effects on the brain. DHA is essential for synaptic function—it helps your brain cells transmit signals to one another, which is the mechanism that makes learning and memory possible. The researchers concluded that DHA supplements would help repair/protect synaptic connectivity

It may cause or contribute to depression and anxiety

If you’ve ever experienced a sugar crash, then you know that sudden peaks and drops in blood sugar levels can cause you to experience symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. That’s because eating a sugar-laden donut or drinking a soda causes blood sugar levels to spike upon consumption and then plummet. When your blood sugar inevitably dips back down (hence the “crash”), you may find yourself feeling anxious, moody or depressed.

Sugar-rich foods can also mess with the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly over-activating these serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression, according to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, functional medicine expert and author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?.

Chronically high blood sugar levels have also been linked to inflammation in the brain. And as some research has suggested, neuroinflammation may be one possible cause of depression.

Teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of sugar on mood. A recent study on adolescent mice, conducted by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine, found a diet high in sugar to contribute to depression and anxiety-like behavior.

Research has also found that people who eat a standard American diet that’s high in processed foods — which typically contain high amounts of saturated fat, sugar and salt — are at an increased risk for developing depression, compared to those who eat a whole foods diet that’s lower in sugar.

How much is enough

In order to best control your sugar intake, it would probably be wise to know what exactly sugar is. Sugar is actually a carbohydrate. Foods in the supermarket don’t always clearly label their sugar content so when reviewing nutrition labels it’s important to be aware that words such as glucose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, starch, corn syrup, fruit juice, raw sugar, and honey are quite inter changeable. Sugar is also added to ketchup, yoghurt, and flavored water just to name a few.

The American Heart association recommends a maximum of nine teaspoons of sugar a day for men and six for women. In order to regulate sugar consumption here are some pointers:

  • a full fat can of coke NINE teaspoons
  • a snickers bar is about EIGHT
  • a pint of beer is about FOUR
  • a glass of white wine is between TWO and THREE

We have to remember that as we consume carbohydrates they are broken down into sugars. This process is slower and less damaging to the body than consuming just sugar. However it will elevate your blood sugar levels and have a harmful effect, particularly if we consume low quality, starchy white carbohydrates.

If you want to know how much sugar is any food, find out the number of grams of starchy white carbohydrate is in the food and then divide by four (4). So the hidden sugar equivalent is even more scary :

  • a bowl of white pasta (without any sugary pasta sauce) (say 100 grams) may be equivalent to the consumption of twenty five tea spoons of sugar (however it will be released more slowly and hence is less damaging than guzzling twenty five teaspoons of sugar)
  • 2 slices of whole wheat bread are TEN tea spoons of sugar

A sugar free world

Your next steps to a sugar free world and a fit and healthy body and mind:

  • Remind yourself that sugar and sugar alternatives are addictive. The more you consume the more you want to consume
  • Remember that white processed carbohydrates equates to sugar consumption – go for slower release low glycemic index carbs
  • Stop buying processed carbs like bread, biscuits, cakes and pasta and replace with vegetables
  • Stop eating chocolate
  • Stop drinking sports drinks
  • Replace fizzy drinks with water and a squeeze of lemon

Within a few days your energy levels will increase and you will feel more mentally alert. Your weight will drop off and your skin will be clearer.  Also remember that sugar alternatives are at least as bad as sugar so simply reduce the sweet things and allow your taste buds to come back to life

Other ways to enhance your brain functioning

Please check with your doctor to check whether any of the following are contra indicated with any medication you may be taking.  The best policy is to eat a wide and varied diet avoiding sugars.  Supplements may play a role but its better to get your nutrients from fresh food

  • Take tyrosine supplements first thing in the morning to boost dopamine levels
  • Take tryptophan or HTP3 supplements in the evening to boost serotonin levels
  • Take high quality fish oil supplements
  • Add vitamin B supplements

Remember everything in moderation. Enjoy the occasional treat but if you want long term excellent physical and mental wellbeing cut sugar out of your diet and by doing so protect the environment and enable crop diversity around the world.

Nature and wellbeing

2014-07-30 16.04.28After 15 very happy months living in Townsville, North Queensland I’m returning to London for three months.  Being surrounded by great natural beauty has had a transformational affect on my mind and body.  At 46 I feel the healthiest and happiest that I have ever felt and I feel that much of that is down to the simple, slow paced life in the tropics and the sheer beauty of the place.  Being in awe of nature seems to stop me dwelling on the small stuff.

Just before I returned to Australia, in March 2014, my mum  died very unexpectedly.  One minute she was baking cakes, playing tennis and looking forward to the arrival of more grand children.  The next day she was just gone and I was reading a poem at her funeral.

For many months I was confused.  I couldn’t quite believe that gone meant gone. It seemed an impossibility.  There have been so many times in the last 15 months where I have just sat and watched the sunrise or a rainbow or a bird and thought “I wish mum could see this”.  Moving to a beautiful place, combined with mums passing, has woken me up.  I feel really blessed to be healthy and fit.  My priorities have changed.  My commitment is to make the most of this beautiful life and enjoy my friends and family

Thank you Townsville for a very special 15 months

Last year I reflected on why being in nature might have a transformational impact on our minds

On Hinchinbrook

IMG_1753I’ve just spent three magical weeks in Australia and for four days of the holiday we hiked and camped on a tropical island called Hinchinbrook. The island is a few kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland. It’s about 40km long by 3km wide and unlike most of Australia has a sharp backbone of granite mountain peaks rising to over a thousand metres. The island is a national park set within the Great Barrier Reef marine park. Most of the island is covered in thick rainforest and there are dozens of remote, beautiful palm-fringed beaches, waterfalls and freshwater lagoons. The rainforest is some of the oldest in the world and home to many species unique to the island. As you approach the island you get the feeling you’re coming to Jurassic Park

Hinchinbrook is uninhabited and a maximum of 43 people are allowed to visit and camp on the island at any one time. You have to bring your own food and camping equipment and are required to take all your rubbish away with you when you leave. The suggested track to walk along is on the eastern side of the island facing out to the blue Pacific. The Western side faces the mainland of Australia, is full of mangrove swamps, and swarming with crocodiles. You are therefore cut off from the mainland by the steep mountain peaks behind you. At night the only lights are the stars and the only sounds, the animals.

Each day consisted of a seven hour hike through dense tropical rainforest and over beaches carrying heavy backpacks. We woke before the sun came up at 5am and slept at 6.30pm as the sun set.

As we left the island for the hour long trip back to the mainland I thought about why I felt so amazingly healthy. I felt as though every molecule in my body had been replaced with something better. Physically there are lots of reasons for this transformation:

Clean fresh air
Minimum food
Lots of exercise
No light and noise pollution

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But I was also interested in the transformation of my mind. By about day three of our adventure I realised that if I walked in front, along the track, there was nothing in my field of vision which was man made. All I could see was rainforest, beach, sky or sea. There was nothing on the island made by man. Throughout our journey all we had to consider was where to get water from and to be alert to dangers such as snakes and crocodiles – we met several snakes on the path and saw crocodile tracks near our tent!

I’m interested in what happens to your mind when all you see is nature. I think we reflect what we see and fall into harmony with it. Man-made things are usually other people’s attempts to satisfy our existing needs and desires, or to entice us to manufacture new needs and desires. Occasionally man-made things are simply produced to be beautiful. Man-made things force us to make decisions. They play to our senses, they make us compare what we have to what others have, and what we could have. Even things made by man for beauty force a decision from us about whether we think it is a beautiful thing or ugly.

Nature is different. The plants and animals around us have come into existence through evolutionary efficiency. They evolved to become the form they are because nature has no choice. Things flow into a new form in order to thrive. Nature is not on display for our satisfaction. It is arranged to be the best it can be. The plants and animals fight and co-operate with each other in perfect harmony to create perfection. Man’s creations are based on opinions and thoughts. Man-made objects attempt to freeze time and create a false idea of the permanence of beauty, or usefulness. When we surround ourselves with nature we reflect its non-thinking state and become engrained in the moment. We become part of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. As you walk along the path and observe rainforest you start to feel that the boundary between you and the forest is illusory. You detach from your thoughts and realise you are part of a whole and not separate.

As we become more connected and use technology to do great things with our lives we also need to spend time immersed in nature. If we fail to do this we move away from our true essence. The more time we spend away from nature, the more we turn inwards and inflate our egos. Our thoughts are fanned and we become isolated people. Nature reflects our true essence of belonging to the earth and the elements.

In the photograph below you can see the rubbish that two of us created in four days – about the size of two or three Pret a Manger sandwich wrappings. Optimising our wellbeing and having great experiences does not equate to ever-increasing levels of production, consumption and material acquisition. Our weak politicians fail to understand this. Growth is still the mantra.

While we were on the island a report came out that half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has been destroyed in 27 years. Experts argue over the causes of the destruction, however, most of the blame for the massive reduction in biodiversity that follows the death of coral reefs can be placed squarely on the growth of the use of man-made chemicals in farming and mining along the Queensland coast leaching into the Pacific.

I hope you found this useful and thought provoking.

Love,
Andy

Mindfulness and leadership

animal-leader2As I started to write this article I wanted to call it the Mindful Leader but this brought to mind images of North Korean leaders. So its an article about leadership and what leaders should focus upon.

Ask yourself two questions. Who is the leader in my organisation and who is the most influential person? It’s quite common that the answers to these two questions may be very different. The person that stimulates, encourages, connects, motivates, listens too, energises may not be the leader. The leader may have become aloof and removed

Since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and in the decade before that there has been a growth in command and control style of leadership. The call went out for leaders who could cut costs and extract value. And this has come at a heavy price.

Daniel Goleman, the Emotional Intelligence guru has said, “the common cold of leadership is poor listening”. With ever shortening deadlines, increased customer expectations, a heightened competitive environment and increased a huge increase in data, a leader can be left not knowing where to turn. In such an environment the safest place for a command and control leader is back to the security of goal focus and ridged top down management.

Successful leaders need to be able to focus on four critical areas:

  • Exploitation – extracting the maximum value from current products and services
  • Exploration – awareness of the competitive environment, so that they can prepare for challenges and take advantage of opportunities
  • Focusing on the culture and vibe of the organisation to ensure that they are listening to their team – picking up concerns and being able to harness great ideas
  • Self awareness – understanding their impact upon others

Each of these skills is essential to good leadership but require very different neural pathways. A great leader can move seamlessly between one style of working and another. The leader who spends too much time on any one area, at the expense of the others, will have difficulty engaging and harnessing the collective energy and focus of the organisation. This balancing act requires great mindfulness.

A leader needs to be able to see what others cannot see. When a leader focuses upon a something she gives it meaning. But is it the right thing to attend to? Will it bring value to the organisation and pull the team together. And once the collective attention of the organisation has been placed in the subject, the challenge of a leader is to retain that attention through powerful, uplifting and engaging stories.

The great balancing act requires a leader to have a wide range of emotional intelligence skills including being empathetic, sensing their affect on others, good team work, heightened listening skills and cooperation.

A recent Accenture study of CEOs came up with one over arching factor that was an essential part of the successful leaders tool kit – self awareness.

Just think back to the performance of ex CEO of BP, Tony Hayward . After a long delay in responding in person to the Gulf of Mexico tragedy he turned up on a local beach and said to the gathered press group, “Nobody wants this over more than I do. I want my life back” . No mention of the deaths of BP staff and the suffering of their families, no mention of the environmental catastrophe, no mention of the economic hardship for local fishermen…”I want my life back”….

A leader must be authentic. A leader must listen. A leader must be humble and know that he serves his employees, shareholders and the wider community.

To learn more about Mindfulness, Leadership and Emotional Intelligence contact me at www.breathe-london.com or www.breathe-australia.com

Andy

 

 

Two maps

Breathe Australia Ad Trimmed-2In 1999 I came to live in the beautiful country of  Australia. I was fascinated with the red heart of this country, its unique light and its aboriginal heritage.

However by about the time of the new milenium I was a man feeling ill at ease with himself. I felt something was missing in my life.

At the time I was working in corporate finance at KPMG in Sydney. I lived in a beautiful apartment overlooking Bondi beach. I was one step away from partnership at the firm. I felt strong and healthy and had a wide circle of friends. My prospects were good.

But I felt ill at ease.

Part of the unease arose from the consulting assignments that I was being asked to work on. These included online gambling companies, coalmines, an arms manufacturer and so on. They made me feel uncomfortable and were out of line with my values.

In addition to this I was reading more and more about climate change and also seeing with my own eyes how the coral was becoming bleached and dead on the barrier reef.

It became clear to me that if things continued, as they were, the natural progression was towards environmental devastation, possibly within my lifetime.

I therefore concluded, as a rationale economist would, that in order to maximise the utility from my life I would explore new things, stop accumulating wealth and extract all the juice that I could from this precious, finite life. The desire for experience led me on an outward journey to see as much of the world that I could see.

I also experienced an inward journey. I studied  Yoga in ashrams and learnt psychology. In the last fifteen years I’ve been blessed to have experienced so many new things and met so many beautiful people in my new coaching and wellbeing career.

The businesses that we have created encourage people to be more mindful of their bodies and their minds. The amazing therapists at our London centre (www.breathe-london.com)  provide people with tools to help them see the world and themselves in a balanced and calm way. If people view themselves and others with kindness and compassion then we have a chance to reduce the destructive forces, which are destroying our bodies, minds and this beautiful planet

The year 2015

In all major industrialised countries depression, obesity and the use of anti depressants is on the rise. Why?  Is it the disease of over consumption and inequality?

Business and political leaders spout the mantra that we have to keep consuming more and more in order to elevate the poorest in our societies through trickle down economics.  But this model appears to be failing.  Whilst half the world lives in abject poverty, 1% of the rich control 50% of the wealth and each year this yawning gap becomes larger.

photo-2

(The graph shows how in each period of economic expansion in the US, the top 10% of people (in terms of wealth) have faired compared to the bottom 90%. Amazingly in the last economic growth cycle most Americans saw a shrinkage in their wealth)

Researchers from the field of Positive Psychology, including  Ed Diener and many others, have concluded that financial wealth does not have a relationship with emotional or spiritual wealth. Once we earn above a basic salary and have other basic freedoms such as access to healthcare, privacy, freedom of movement , democratic rights, housing and education we do not become happier as we become wealthier.

Throughout the wealthy economies capital is becoming increasingly clustered at the top whilst the rest of society is told that  free healthcare or education can no longer be afforded.

When the fairness quotient becomes out of whack political and social instability usually follows.

But the political and business mantra continues. We have to grow more, build more, and consume more

And the madness is that this lunacy has been exported to India and China. The huge middle classes in these super powers aspire to our levels of consumption. Young people move to their big cities, breaking up families and breaking up ancient traditions. The desire for Gucci and Sony and McDonalds is driving a wedge between them and the things in life that truly bring happiness – a connection to traditions, being in nature, having a sense of duty and community, kinship and family

At some stage in the near future as 7 becomes 8 billion and 9 and 10 and 11, a financial, political, psychological and spiritual tipping point will be reached.

In the west we have experienced the devastating effects of over consumption and inequality.   We have a moral duty to change our behaviours. Our consumption will consume us if we let it.  We also need to show urgent leadership .  We need to understand the madness of other consumption and inequality .  We need to provide sustainable housing, healthcare and education to the needy in our own societies and overseas

I vowed back in 2003 that I would not be part of the machinery that led to the destruction of body, mind, soul and planet. When I take new coaching work on I weigh up carefully whether my work will encourage people to move in a positive direction.

Australia

aboriginal map australia

The first beautiful picture is a map of  the country I love. Australia had a wealth of indigenous knowledge, hundreds of languages and customs. Many of them are lost for ever. When Captain Cook first arrived it was noted that as the ships sat in the harbour the aboriginal people on the foreshore appeared to ignore them. This may seem strange to us but recent evidence suggests that the way we interpret the world around depends, to a great extent, on what we expect or are told to see. Perhaps these alien images simply were not in the range of comprehension of these original Australians. We have no real idea of how they lived in harmony with the natural world and how they experienced life.

We never asked them

The imposition of the mantra of growth, expansion and learning on these cultures has been devastating.

The last map is the Australian governments own estimates of the likely increase in temperatures over the next 60 to 80 years. The lucky country appears headed to become the dead, burnt country

 

20140125-ozclim-GFDL-CM2-1-Aus-temp-2095

Business leaders, politicians, community leaders, teachers…This is all that counts now ……. Right now…….. Leaders who ignore the science and encourage over consumption and inequality are not leaders.

 

Building a bright, positive future

If you are working as hard as you can, spending little time with the kids so that you can bequeath them your wealth then seize this moment. Work less and spend more time with them. The environmental experts say that this makes sense

If you are working hard to build up your wealth so that you become happier, then change your behaviours. Strive less for financial security and work hard on the depth and quality of your friendships. Sit quietly and observe your own drives and impulses. Exercise more and spend time in nature. The psychologists say that this will help you feel healthier and happier.

If you are a business leader, take a good, hard look at all of your products. Which ones are sustainable? The market is sometimes slow in placing a fair value on irrational behaviours. We know that we can’t burn all the carbon in the ground but banks still fund carbon exploration. We know that if we keep destroying the forests for mono crop culture we have no future. We need to ascertain which products add to human and global wellbeing and which destroy value. Economic history suggests that this day of price reckoning will come. Are you ready for it?

All of us can take a look at what we consume, how we consume and how we dispose of our waste. For each item of consumption consider whether it brings health and happiness and at what cost? And then consider the environmental and ethical implications of the product.

If just one person reads this and then strives to be a more responsible global citizen then I will have had a good afternoon at work.

 

If you agree with what I have written please share www.breathe-australia.com

Andy J

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathe Australia Ad Trimmed-2

End of the road for Positive Psychology at work?

Lion-Wallpaper-the-animal-kingdom-3695548-1600-1067There is a great scene near the end of the Australian film, Animal Kingdom. The murderous, ever positive matriarch of the family gang is confronted by the death of her last son. Up until that point every set back, including the gangland slaughter of most of her family, had been met with a rosy one liner about how all would turn out well. In one of the last scenes of the film we see her hunched and sobbing at the breakfast table. She turns to one of the few remaining gang members, red eyed and sobbing and blurts out, “I’ll be fine darl, I’m just looking for my positive spin”. Of course it all ends painfully for the drug gang, who had a date with destiny from the start of the film.

About nine years ago I started to get really interested in the emerging field of Positive Psychology. I’d come from a corporate finance background and I was particularly interested in how the work place could become a more satisfying place for all concerned. My particular bias was that I had spent eleven years in the accounting profession. Which can be a tad dry…My first role as a fresh faced KPMG recruit was as an auditor in the West Midland. I spent many wet Wednesday afternoons in steel works in places like Smethwick checking widget inventories. My wonderful doleful brummie friend Graham Frost gave me some charming advice at the start of my auditing days.

 “Andy, first they will crush your soul with mind numbing tasks and they will rob your creativity and drive through a regime of fear and intimidation…And then they will re build you into a perfectly functioning KPMG finance attack dog. From that point on you are theirs. You will see through their eyes. And you too will enjoy the power and majesty of becoming an assistant audit manager in the KPMG Birmingham practice. You will have the power to bend young recruits to your will. And as you climb the pole to the dizzy heights of audit manager your power and influence will grow. Your esteem and bank balance will rise. You will become what you now loathe… A perfect chiseled auditing machine. You have no choice. It is written”

So that’s my heuristic bias out on the table. I was superbly well paid and highly bored.   Towards the end of my KPMG career I started to explore the relationship between money and happiness and how to find meaning in life. After lots of false dawns I’ve become a quirky, economist trained, yoga teaching, geek accountant, psychologist hybrid. Able to match “The Office” with “Deepak Chopra” and the “hard headed”, “serious” , “evidenced based” world of corporate psychology. I am one of the army of Positive Psychology consultancies ready to swoop down and measure your employee wellbeing and find authentic ways to enthuse, energise, motivate and generally fluff your staff…..

But …..from day one of studying Positive Psychology in the workplace I’ve had a strange, queasy, uneasy feeling about everything that the “research” was suggesting makes people more engaged and work harder.   I am blessed that KPMG trained me so well. I can sniff out bullshit and I know how office politics works for real.

So if you are the owner of a company looking to engage your staff here are my five potential bullshit beware items:

1) Employee engagement questionnaires –

download (9)Nobody at work wants to do them. They get filled in by harassed folk and fail to address underlying blockages between colleagues. Poor managers use them as a tool to address staff wellbeing and motivation. If you feel you have to use one, the Gallup Q12 is short and sweet. Make sure you back it up with actual communication. Ask people what’s up. All the others are just money making fatter, longer, more boring versions of the Q12

Conclusion – the jury is out. Management by algorithm should never replace actually listening to what people want to say

2)  If we can make people more positive in their interactions with colleagues then the organisation will thrive

Back in 2006 psychologist called Losada was very popular. He came up with the idea of measuring the positive to negative ratio of expressions between work colleagues and then mapping these to future financial performance of an organisation. He found that a positive to negative expression ratio greater than 3 to 1, in an organisation, led to “thriving”. With a ratio of below that or above 8 to 1 organisations languished. The argument was that greater than 8 to 1 was a recipe for a floppy organisation full of yes men. He had based his calculations  on complex fractal mathematics. Lots of people like me, studying for a masters degree in positive psychology, quoted this magic ratio and used it as leverage to win work. Until some bright spark at UEL discovered that the maths was bull. Here’s a little secret – most positive psychologists don’t understand statistics. I’m lucky that I studied statistics at degree level and am a Chartered Accountant. But I never understood all the math.

Now I’m not saying that we all need to spend long dreary hours at work or that happy thriving fun offices are not something to aspire to but we have to get real. In every job and every organisation there should be a time for fun and a time for serious, focused, hard edged drive. One size does not fit all organisations.

Conclusion – more research needs to be done. Surely its better to match the task at hand with a useful emotion. For example a blue sky, team building, exploratory meeting needs to be light and fun. Reviewing a colleagues report needs to feel stern, serious even argumentative (especially if the colleagues are friends). The devil is always, always in the detail. Introducing forced positivity is a recipe for passive aggressive stifling of meaningful communication

 3) People who are optimistic about the future and visualise successful outcomes are likely to succeed at what they do

download (10) More than two decades ago, Gabriele Oettingen, conducted a study in which women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events. They were asked to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. They were then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.

A year later the results were striking. The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.

In the last 20 years Gabriele and his team have replicated this finding using many different scenarios (for example people looking for jobs). In their research they discovered that dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. They also went on to accomplish less during that week.

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it. It should be noted however that focusing just on the negatives will also have an adverse effect on performance.

It seems that a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how the research describe it :

“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”

They described this process “mental contrasting,”. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. It seems that Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

Conclusion – The studies by Gabriele Oettingen are a breath of fresh air. I’ve written a good deal for the need to observe your thoughts and feelings in a mindful manner. If we can look at the future in a rosy positive light then we are more likely to see wonderful opportunities and have more “aha” moments. But its far more powerful and engaging to also choose to focus on what can go wrong. If you do this in a calm, dispassionate manner you become forearmed and better placed to face the challenges ahead.

 4) Happier people work better

bottomlineA 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.

Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.

They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.

This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.

The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office. When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.

Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.

The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.

 Happy people may be less persuasive.

Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.

In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.

Conclusion

Its all about context again. Trying to increase happiness across the board within an organization is a foolish task. We need to look at the drivers of engagement – the relationships that people have, the likelihood of advancement, being rewarded fairly, having training available to succeed etc. Happiness at work is a by product of these things

5)  If we can get our staff to realise that their meaning and engagement is not linked to how much we reward them we can work them harder and pay them less

Positive Psychology is a genius corporate tool. Here is the argument:

  • There is no relationship between your subjective wellbeing (how happy you think you are) and your financial wealth.
  • People find meaning and engagement at work by things like loving and appreciating colleagues, loving their roles, receiving sufficient training, having nice environments etc
  • Happier people are less likely to leave, will be nicer to their colleagues, share information and work harder
  • If we can get them to find meaning and get them to be happier we can work them harder and pay them less!

Take a look at this graph. It shows how the top 10% of earners in the US have performed financially during every period of gross domestic product growth. Its startling. In the 50s as the economy grew, the engine of the economy (the bottom 90%) enjoyed the greatest increase in their wealth. By 2014 the roles have switched. The top 10% have enjoyed the benefits of growth whilst the incomes of the bottom 90% has actually declined during growth periods!!!

photo-2The thing that drives our thoughts, feelings and actions is fairness. The majority of working people have seen real cuts to their living standards whilst the management group have enjoyed the growth. Empires topple when the unfairness factor becomes all encompassing. Positive psychology programs at work can only mask unfairness for so long.

Organisations mirror society. This is the environment within which Australian business operates:

  •  Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
  • The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
  • 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
  • Depression affects 1 million Australians

Conclusion

Given the society background care and sensitivity is needed when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Employers need to appreciate that the prospect of improved financial reward is vital. Without it unfairness grows and the wheels start to come off. Without the prospect of a better future hope withers and dies at work. People become disengaged, more fearful and feel pitted against their colleagues. Employers also need to be realistic . The workplace mirrors society. Forced positivity can be stifling for people feeling real hardship.

Is there a role for Positive Psychology programs at work?

I’m not sure anymore. I think there are gold nuggets within some of the research and tools that have been developed. And within the positive psychology coaching profession there are some super talented, loving, passionate coaches

Any tool which helps people develop kindness and compassion and positive regard for their colleagues has got to be a good thing. We want to work in happy, rewarding, challenging and fun places. I think many of the Positive Psychology interventions fit well underneath the banner of mindfulness at work, rather than the other way around.

We need to be more mindful that sometimes things are good and sometimes bad and that all things pass eventually. We need to be mindful of our emotions and those of our colleagues and also cut ourselves (and them) some slack. Work mirrors society. If we are having hard times outside of work then it will impact us at work. We need to improve our focus and learn when to switch on and when to tune out. We need to really appreciate that our worst enemy and our most negative of emotions may be our greatest teacher and our greatest blessing. We need to get comfortable with sitting and exploring our negative thoughts and emotions and harness their power to facilitate growth. By contemplating grief, tragedy and failure we can learn and grow and allow the fun times to flow.

Yoga and neuroscience

photo (1)My yoga journey started back in 1999. From the start I was hooked. Initially drawn to fast paced dynamic flow yoga, my practice has evolved over the years. The hard physical aspect of assana practice was my entry point to the  complexity of yoga.

Early in my practice I was blessed to come accross an amazing Iyengar yoga teacher. She had been a pupil of the great teacher,  Iyengar, for over 25 years. Over the years she had direct experience of Iyengar’s adjustments and I was lucky to receive some of this wealth of experience via Brenda. In 2003 I was also lucky to stumble accross Sivananda yoga. Their fantastic course provided a great introduction to the beautiful knowledge from the Yoga sutras and also the Bhagavad Gitta. Since then I’ve learnt techniques and received insights from hundreds of amazing teachers and been lucky to have taught thousands of classes and workshops.

My yoga journey led away from my former career in Corporate Finance with KPMG towards physical and mental fitness.  And from there to Leadership development and Mindfulness

Yoga – flourishing 

Many people see yoga as a stress management tool, a good stretch, a way to alleviate pain or create a hard and lean body. It is all this but is also much more. The Eight Limbs of Yoga, contained within the Yoga Sutras, provides a diligent practicioner with the keys to a thriving life. Daily practice provides insight into the perfection that is already present. We reveal our inner radiance and connection to the outer radiance by exploring and bringing into presence each area of the eight limbs.

Through my subsequent exploration of neuroscience and Positive Psychology I have have come to realise how each of the eight limbs re wires the brain. Diligent practice enables us to thrive as individuals and also fosters community and global wellbeing.

The Eight Limbs

The long roadPatanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras over 2,000 years ago.  It builds on the observations of thousands of years of self enquiry by seekers of knowledge.  It is a deep, rich source of powerful tools.

Many mental health practitioners are embracing the wonderful concepts from various Buddhist traditions but there is a real lack of knowledge among psychologists about the depth and power for brain training and whole body flourishing contained within the Eight Limbs of Yoga.  Here is a little about each :

Yama – mindfully developing love, kindness and compassion for others and the environment

Niyama – mindfully developing self kindness and compassion. This includes being mindful of our cravings and impulses and regulating them in order to encourage non attachment. Through practice we are better able to savour, observe and let go – Non grasping. Non affliction. The joy of life flows and we let it flow on by

Asana – mindful observation of our physical bodies. The act of observing in a kind and compassionate manner changes the observed and has a positive impact on the brain

Pranayama – mindful observation of our breath changes the observed. As we engage in deep, slow, abdominal breathing, our resting heart rate and blood pressure are positively influenced. And as we engage in this process the body informs the mind, through the vagal nerve, that all is well. We feel safe, loved and have all we need. No need to run. No need to strive in order to keep up with the crowd. In a calm, balanced, state we are better able to attend to the things in life that bring meaning and foster personal and global wellbeing

Pratyahara – Mindfully turning our attention inward in order to observe the relationship between cause and effect. We observe how we crave some things and are repulsed by others. This mindful, non judgmental, observation allows us to unpick some of the hard wired tendancies that we have. These are the tendencies we were born with, the ones that came to us with our development and the ones that we are creating or solidifying at this very moment. Like Leonardo DA Vinci we become the disciple of experience through mindful observation. We observe ourselves moving through life, attracted by some things, repulsed by others. Calm observation fascilitates the development of wisdom as we understand that our ego is nothing but a bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations wrapped in a physical layer. Observation enables us to understand that the self is not an unchanging thing but an evolving, connected thing which can grow and change and live harmoniously within the world

Dyhana – Being mindful of the first five limbs requires focus. Dyhana is the process of training the attention to focus on one thing. As we practice this we get better at it. With the sharpened tool of attention we can attend better to developing kindness and compassion for others. We are also better able to develop kindness and compassion for ourselves. With sharpened attention we can be more mindful of our physical bodies, our breath and better placed to observe and regulate our thoughts and feelings. Without attention we can not attend to that which we find meaningful . Without attention we cannot attend to the things that the Buddha and Patanjli observed made us thrive

Dharana – effortless attention. Through practice the karmic impulses are quietened and non judgmental single pointed focus can be achieved effortlessly.

Samadi – a practicioner of yoga may experience fleeting moments and profound realisations. The realisation that our neurons are connected. As you suffer, I suffer. As you thrive, I thrive. The world in peace and harmony . The mind in peace and harmony. Transcenence, oneness. The realisation of perfection

Our next course, Positive Psychology for Yoga teachers, Mental health workers, Psychologist  and Yoga students, explores how the findings from Positive Psychology and Emotional Intelligence compares and contrasts with the observations of Yoga practiconers.

The next course is with myself and Michale de Maninor at the Yoga Institute, Sydney on the 9th November http://www.breathe-australia.com/sessions

Happiness at work – the good and the bad

bottomlineI’m always a bit dubious about psychology studies that purport to show that happy employees are more creative, diligent and productive. Sure we all want to be happy at work and be surrounded by happy colleagues but apart from having some fun at work we also want to be inspired, pushed, challenged and to find meaning.

 The happiness industry

Here’s an example of some recent research:

A 2010 study, by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School, concluded that there was a positive link between an employee’s happiness and their productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. The subjects were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. They were paid an attendance fee, and also a performance fee based on how they performed.

Half of the group was then shown a ten-minute comedy film. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants, compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips. The participants then repeated the task. The researchers concluded that those participants with an elevated self reported happiness level were 12% more productive than the participants with non-elevated happiness levels.

They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity.

 Reality check

farside-cat-trickery

This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings.

The Andrew Oswald study involved students at the business school and not employees on a production line or sitting in an office.  When the media reports on these studies they often miss the vital aspect of context.

We have seen a large growth in the Positive Psychology industry in recent. Many wonderful coaching organisations have sprung up around the world, however I am concerned that the simple message that we should all be happy at work can be disempowering and disengaging for lots of people.

Organisations do not exist in a vacuum. They mirror society
Society 

Here are some of the stats for Australia:

  • Anti depressant use in Australia is the second highest in the OECD
  • The Safety at work Australia survey noted in 2013 that 20% of people at work had been humiliated by a colleague and 42% had been bullied at work
  • 1 in 5 Australians say their stress levels affect their health
  • Depression affects 1 million Australians

Given this background it needs care and sensitivity when introducing Positive Psychology programs at work. Happiness is not the goal but can be a by product of being engaged, finding meaning, being well rewarded, experiencing growth and feeling close to colleagues

Emotional intelligence and mindfulness

UntitledDifferent situations and tasks at work require different types of emotions to be generated. For example, research indicates that where fine attention to detail is required( for example when studying the findings of a report) it’s more useful to foster serious, almost downbeat emotions.

Where creative, blue sky thinking is required it’s more useful to engender a fun, light hearted approach. So clearly before HR departments rush out and hire comedians its worthwhile understanding that context and task are at least as important as creating a fun place to work.

We need to learn skills to help us switch between emotions in a calm manner and have the ability to return to the default position, within the organization, of happy and upbeat.

Some of the downsides of happiness at work

 Happy people can be lazy thinkers.

Happy people are more likely to use cognitive shortcuts and approximations when thinking about the world. In one study researchers presented people with a list of 15 words related to a theme (e.g. tired, bed, rest, etc) and then asked participants to recall the list as best they could by looking at a separate list and identifying the original words.

The researchers include some false items related to the theme such as “sleep” that never appeared on the first list. Happy people were 50% more likely than their counterparts to mistakenly identify such words.

Happy people may be less persuasive.

Researcher Bob Cialdini identified concepts associated with persuasion: scarcity, expertise, and so forth. One element of persuasive communication is clear, concrete, detailed arguments. Exactly the stuff happy people are inclined to gloss over.

In three studies, judges rated the arguments about everyday issues such as allocating tax money. Happy people were rated as about 25% less impressive and 20% less detailed than were their more negative counterparts.

Conclusions

I think that the key points that HR departments need to draw from this research are as follows:

  • Ensure that staff have a clear understanding of how to use emotions at work, in particular how to match the appropriate emotion to the task in hand
  • Be aware that because emotions are easily transferable and escalate its easy for the mood of an organization to tilt into a downward spiral
  • Get into the habit of celebrating the strengths and achievements of individuals and teams
  • Find authentic, fun ways to raise the overall mood of the organization
  • There is a place for letting people be moody – it reflects reality. When we are close to our colleagues we adapt and grow accustomed to these moods. Creating a false positivity can be stifling

Our next Townsville courses are at www.breathe-australia.com/sessions

The old lady on the train

I wrote this article last year. Its words mean so much more to me now. Its about growth through loss. Its about love and letting go

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“A couple of weeks ago I was travelling back from North Wales on a packed Virgin train. It was crammed with the usual assortment of hungover post hen/stag do people plus university and army people returning to their digs or barracks. I had spent the weekend at my little brother Dave’s second stag do and hadn’t slept for two days. As I boarded the train I managed to find the last free seat on the whole train. I desperately looked forward to catching up on two hours sleep on the way back to London

As I sat down I said hi to the elderly lady in the seat next to me. That was my first mistake. She was a talker, and by Crewe we were deep in conversation. For the first 20 minutes it was politeness that kept my eyes open. And then things changed . I told her about my life as a yoga teacher. I told her about how when I was 30 I stopped trying to accumulate money and became more interested in experiencing life and learning new things.

She was born on the beautiful island of Anglesey but had moved to the South of England with her childhood sweetheart. They married at 20 and set up a thriving florist business. They were inseparable. When she described him she glowed. At 80 she looked radiant and beautiful. After 25 years of blissful marriage he died suddenly in her arms in their little shop. She has spent the last 30 years asking why.

I had started the conversation by telling her about what yoga teachers do and what positive psychology was all about. As the conversation proceeded I soaked up her wisdom and my tiredness drained away. Her lesson was so beautiful:

– tell the people you love that you love them, never miss an opportunity for cuddles

– move on quickly – life proceeds in one direction – the people who loved you unconditionally would want you to find new love

– build love inside of you, be happy with your company, don’t be too attached to things or people. Work on self love. Feeling good is an attractive trait and brings good people and things into your life

– fear of change is natural but you have attracted love and positive things into your life in the past and you will do the same in the future

– be who you are now – speak your truth, tell people what makes you happy as well as what you fear.

– be true to yourself and be true to other people – 80 or 90 years on this planet and so many people pretend to be something they are not

– enjoy your career – find the thing you love and just do it

After three happy hours on the train I helped her with her bags and we gave each other a big hug. She was a talker. I’m a talker. I also cry easily so we both had happy tears flowing down our cheeks. We connected as two souls in a moment in time. We both joked that we were terrible with names but neither of us cared about that. I felt her goodness, her energy and her wide eyed curiosity in the world. I turned 45 last Saturday and I want to keep being like that.

I don’t know her name but she was beautiful. ”

Since then

I wrote that piece back in July 2013 shortly before my brothers wedding. In February 2014 my mum passed away suddenly and unexpectedly . One minute she was playing tennis, baking cakes and getting excited about the arrival of her third grand child and then she was gone

The things that I wrote about in July I have come to experience in my blood and my heart. I feel humbled by the loss of mum. I don’t know where she has gone. My mind plays tricks and I often think that I need to phone my mum. Loss has made me feel vulnerable and often sad but its also done something very profound.

I feel so grateful to be alive. I live in the moment far more often. I don’t feel work stress any more. I prioritise my leisure time.

When mum passed away I was very lucky to be in the company of a very wise friend. Matthew comforted me and told me of his experience when his dad passed away unexpectedly . He said that because mum was no longer around in physical form that her kindness, strength and loving energy would come through me. I often think , what would mum do now? And as I try to follow her loving nature it reminds me of her and makes me feel that she is close. Her sudden passing has left a terrible void in my family but I feel its brought us even closer together. Terrible loss has made me feel more vulnerable than I used to but I also feel stronger, calmer and a happier person. Matthew’s words have come back to me again and again.

I am so grateful of the loving friends and family in my life

David, Michael, Jane, Chris, Kate and Pete I love you very dearly

Is Mindfulness a trap?

 

UntitledIn recent weeks there have been a number of articles about whether Mindfulness is being taught in “the right way” and some commentators have voiced concern that such courses may be doing more harm than good. Many organisations now pay for trainers to teach their staff how to be Mindful. But what does Mindful mean?  A HR director at a company recently asked me this question. The question made me reappraise my whole approach to Mindfulness and led me to conclude that Mindfulness should be at the heart of Coaching, Education, Politics, Business Training, Mind Therapies and Physical Therapies. In fact it is the essence of all we do.

Defining Mindfulness

A common definition of Mindfulness is, “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something

Another common definition is, “to be in the moment observing whatever arises in a non-judgmental way”.

Another way of saying Mindfulness is to attend to or pay attention to something. But what is the “of something” we are focussing our attention on?  This blog explores how established frameworks such as “Yoga” and “Buddhism” teach Mindfulness, how it fits into a personal and societal development framework and how these teachings can inform the methods taught within organisations.

 Mindfulness in organisations

download (1)Many training companies follow an approach similar to Jon Kabat Zinns Mindful Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR). They do this because it is a highly effective, evidenced based program. People who adhere to the program handle stress well, are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions effectively, have a higher tolerance to pain as well as enjoying many other positive physiological and psychological effects. In general it is an excellent program.  The MBSR program focuses on teaching:

  • How to observe the breath (to sharpen our ability to focus on the present),
  • Relaxation tools
  • How to observe the world through the five senses and
  • How to observe fleeting thoughts and feelings.

All of these are invaluable tools.  Organisations and their staff look to such programs to help manage their stress. They also produce wonderful by-products for the organisation. Employees who feel calm and balanced have improved levels of emotional and cognitive regulation. They tend to be more creative, productive and share information more readily with their colleagues.

Mindfulness taught in a vacuum

My only criticism of such programs is that they cherry pick bits of Buddhist and Yoga teachings in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Looking at the very words of MBSR – Mindful Based Stress Reduction.  Stress reduction is a goal. A destination. It is not a program with a holistic approach to personal development.

Since my preliminary attempts to introduce Mindfulness into organisations back in 2007 there has been an exponential increase in Mindfulness consultancy firms. Many are excellent. However I have seen awful examples of trainers with little personal Mindfulness experience going into organisations to run short, one off training sessions for staff.  These are merely stress Band-Aids. These poorly managed courses do not go to the heart of what it means to be Mindful. They teach techniques to alleviate stress without exploring underlying causes of stress. They merely encourage the practitioner to identify strongly with ego and use the techniques as temporary measures to deal with life.

My Vipassana teacher, S. N Goenka, taught me that breath awareness and other techniques to sharpen the attention are wonderful tools but they are merely part of a package. He describes training the attention in isolation from a holistic framework to be “bare attention”. Its like sowing seeds on barren ground.  When you open your eyes the world is still, at times, a violent and dangerous place. Without a holistic personal development framework, attention-focussing techniques merely embed the ego.

The Buddhist and Yoga approaches

Untitled

In both Buddhist and Yoga traditions learning to focus attention is a vital part of a persons development and is one of the tools enabling the conditions for good physical and mental health to develop.  Both traditions instruct that Mindfulness is taught in conjunction with:

  • Learning to contribute to a more ethical, harmonious environment.
  • Being sensitive to the needs of other people and the environment
  • Training ourselves to be kind, compassionate and empathetic
  • Learning to positively detach from wants, craving and desires
  • Understanding that life is constantly changing and learning to detach from a rigid view of our selves and environment

Mindfulness is complex

Both traditions also teach that Mindfulness is not a simple construct. For example we can be mindful of our internal world:

  • Our thoughts & feelings;
  • Each of the 5 commonly understood ways of detecting sensations within our body;
  • Our breath;
  • Our posture

And we can also choose to be mindful of the world around us by using each of our five senses.

Is it merely about being in the moment?

download (7)If we look at common descriptions of Mindfulness we see “being in the moment”, or “observing whatever arises without judgement”. By learning to focus attention on whatever arises, the act of observation quietens the mind and helps me observe recurring patterns of thought and feelings. This practice also sharpens the ability to attend to what ever I choose to attend to.  Many Mindfulness courses teach people to attend to the present moment by using a point of focus such as the breath. As discussed earlier these techniques have tremendous positive physiological and psychological benefits but they fail to address underlying causes. This approach to Mindfulness is useful but it is just part of the story of what it means to choose to attend to something. 

For example as part of my Positive Psychology studies I looked at the Zimbardo Time perspective research. This area of research describes a framework for our thoughts and chunks up our thought  (“time spent” or “mental capacity”) into the following areas (I’ve simplified this a good deal):

  • Past positive – looking back at the past and reflecting on prior experience in a positive way
  • Past negative – re examining the past an reflecting negatively on events
  • Living in the moment experiencing and observing whatever arises in the moment
  • Future positive – planning for and envisaging a positive future
  • Future negative – worrying about the future and focussing on what can go wrong

The way I have described the time perspective research is simplified and there are other dimensions but it enables us to explore what it means to attend to something in greater detail. The research suggests that the happiest people tend to be able to use each of these thought dimensions in a fluid manner. For example “future negative” thinking can be extremely useful when we need to understand worst-case scenarios to adequately assess risk, without becoming obsessed or overly stressed about a possible future.

Many Mindfulness courses simply teach practices to observe the present but in Yoga and Buddhist practices we learn to sharpen the attention so that we can deliberately choose to attend to potential realities. For example some Tibetan Buddhist practices teach students to visualise desirable beautiful bodies as rotting and decaying. With heightened awareness, students are able to do this without experiencing  an adverse physiological effect and to reflect impartially on death and impermanence. This is a useful technique to learn detachment from ego and permanence. It enables us to grow and prepare for the future. It allows Mindfulness to be a tool for personal development and not merely a stress management tool.

Similarly there are marvellous Tibetan Buddhist practices which teach us to deliberately attend to the problems and perceived ‘mistakes’ we have made in the past. By calm deliberate non judgmental reflection on these things we can change our negative tendencies and create new healthy patterns of living.

Sequential mindful observation

The Buddhist and Yoga traditions teach sequential Mindful observation. We can’t be Mindful of everything internally and externally all at the same time so we practice focussing on different things at different times. This does not mean that one stage leads to another but we train our attention to attend to different things at different times in order to grow and learn.  In this way it becomes an engrained habit to observe the world in a fluid and calm manner. The more we practice Mindfulness the better able we are to make positive healthy choices. We can pick our way gently through the noisy stimulation that surrounds us. We are better able to choose to attend to positive stimulus and thoughts

Yoga  an example of structured mindful development

UntitledPatanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga provide structure. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, encourage us to attend to developing kindness and compassion and living within an ethical, harmonious framework. The third limb, Asana, teaches us to attend to the relationship between our mind and the physical sensations in the body as we practice the postures. The fourth limb, Pranayama, teaches us to be mindful of our breathing. We use this as a tool for both physiological and psychological benefit and in order to sharpen the attention.  Pratyahara is the fifth limb. Students begin the process of withdrawing from observation using the senses. This leads to the final stages of single pointed concentration leading to a state of Mindful awareness without judgement.

I need to emphasise again that although there is clear structure for developing Mindfulness in the Yoga system documented by Patanjali, one state does not lead to another. For example we do not attain mastery in attending to the development of kindness and compassion and then move on to mindful awareness of posture or breath. As part of our training we attend to one aspect at a time and build up our skills in each area

Through this process we learn to detach from negative influences and cultivate an optimistic and realistic mindset which is open to growth and development.

Challenges and negative stimulation

This is not to say that we ignore the challenges or negative influences around us. They are as much a part of life as positive influences.  However by learning Mindfulness within a Buddhist or Yoga holistic framework we observe the world with kindness and compassion and we develop an understanding that all things arise and pass away. “Good” things arise and pass away as do “bad” things.  By learning how to detach from fleeting thoughts and feelings we can minimise many of the harmful physiological effects of observing our pain and suffering or that of others.  Detachment does not mean that we become isolated and aloof from our emotions. As part of the Buddhist and Yoga traditions we train ourselves to be mindful of being kind, loving and compassionate.

Students of Yoga and Buddhism train their minds to feel the pain and suffering of others but learn to allow those fleeting emotions to flow through them without negatively affecting their physiology.  In this way they are better able to observe emotions, empathise with others, use both their emotional signals and their deeper values to choose better actions, then allow thoughts, emotions and decisions to flow through them – they learn to positively detach from suffering and move on.

Allowing the good times to flow

In the same way that students train their minds to  allow “negative” emotions and experiences to flow through them, they also appreciate that the good times come and go. By not overly attaching to the good times we allow new experiences to come to us.  We are taught that liking an experience can lead to attachment, which can lead to craving. When craving cannot be fulfilled it can lead to “negative” emotions which may have a strong physiological impact – for example loss, jealousy, anger etc.  That does not mean we can’t enjoy the good times and the positive emotions that arise from them. It just means we allow them to come and go in the knowledge that trying to hold on to a fleeting thought and feeling inevitably leads to suffering

He who binds to himself a joy Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

William Blake 

Conclusions

I remain a big advocate of Mindfulness courses for individuals and for staff within organisations. My only note of caution would be that when trainers are putting courses together they should have the necessary practical personal experience of having learnt Mindfulness within an established tradition. Patanjali and the Buddha taught complex psychological tools 2,500 years ago. These have been observed, practiced and developed since then. A coach or trainer’s ability to teach Mindfulness depends upon their experience of what it means to be mindful.

Without understanding that Mindfulness goes hand in hand with developing positive intention, understanding impermanence and detachment, many of the benefits of practice may not accrue. Indeed simply teaching Mindfulness as a stress management tool deepens attachment to ego and may be a barrier to personal to growth and raised self awareness.

My experiences

For more information about courses Positive Psychology and Mindfulness go to www.breathe-australia.com

Like many Mindfulness coaches my training has come from many different sources including :

  • Mindfulness of body awareness and breath from my Yoga and Chi Kung training (Sivananda and Iyengar Yoga)
  • Mindfulness of the relationship between cause and effect (Tibetan Buddhism)
  • Mindfulness of physical sensations arising in my own body (Vipassana meditation, Goenka centres)
  • Mindfulness of cultivating kindness, empathy and compassion (Buddhism, Vipassana and Positive Psychology)
  • Mindfulness of emotions (The Mayers Salovey Caruso model of emotional intelligence)
  • Study of the Mindful Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR)
  • Various research areas from Positive Psychology including Flow and Philip Zimbardo’s research on Time perspective

I started practicing physical Yoga (the Asanas) in 1999 and subsequently trained with the Sivananda organisation to become a Yoga teacher. They provided an excellent grounding in the philosophy of Yoga.

In 2007, as part of my Masters degree in Positive Psychology, I studied the Jon Kabat Zinn Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and my dissertation was “introducing Meditation and Mindfulness into organisations”. Since 2008 I have practiced Vipassana Buddhist meditation techniques at the Goenka centres around the world. In 2008 I studied the MSCEIT model of Emotional Intelligence. This model teaches a systematic approach to recognising, understanding, using and managing your own and other people’s emotions.

 

How our posture and emotions are connected

The Mind & Body Connection 

Over the past 10 years we’ve been building a team of Mind and Body therapists at our centre in Waterloo.  It’s been clear to us from day one that as you treat and train the body you also have an impact on the way you think and feel.   It’s equally clear that the way you think and feel has an impact on our posture and physical health.

We now have a great team of over twenty Mind and Body therapists based at the Colombo Centre in the heart of London

This weeks amazing blog is contributed by Keith Graham, one of two Rolfers at our centre www.breathe-london.com and www.breathe-australia.com

Posture and emotions

Leonardo-da-Vinci-Vitruvian-Man

The shapes we make with our bodies as we go through life are not something we have to think about but seem instead to be influenced by deep preconscious survival systems which respond moment by moment to the spaces we inhabit and the situations we encounter.

These continual shape adjustments made by the musculoskeletal system but involving also the respiratory, nervous and endocrine systems are not necessarily confined to what is happening in the present moment but can be conditioned also by events from our past and also by ideas we have, hopes and fears perhaps, about the future. Furthermore, to a trained observer these unconscious signals open a window into the deep enduring belief systems and fleeting emotional filters which effect how we posture in life.

Mary Bond a Rolfer and Movement specialist writes in her book “The New Rules of Posture” – our shape, how we hold ourselves, isn’t a fixed thing, “posture is in fact, a response,” a response to “where am I and what is happening here?”

Ron Kurtz the founder of the Hakomi method of body centred psychotherapy remarks that, “Our habitual gestures and even fleeting facial expressions can give very accurate clues about the beliefs that condition that persons’s way of being in and responding to the world.”

Hubert Godard, Scientist, Dancer and Rolf Movement Faculty member notes “We are affected physically, and psychologically by the world around us – but the spaces we share are not homogenous.

Insights from Rolfing

One of Ida Rolf’s  (the creator of the Rolfing Bodywork series) key insights was that appropriate relationship with gravity is a fundamental necessity to our health as humans on planet Earth.

picture-610For a long time we have traditionally observed this relationship in two ways. From a structural point of view, we use the terms of ‘alignment’or ‘posture.’ From a functional view point, studying the movement of various joints and the impact of forces upon them we have developed the science of ‘biomechanics.’  However, both of these perspectives carry a kind of objectification, a denial of human experience. For instance, when pain brings our attention to a particular area of the body, we do not experience this as a collection of muscle fibre contractions, boney side bends and rotations or hyper aroused nerve impulses. Alignment and Biomechanics completely leave out what we as individuals are ‘feeling’ and ‘experiencing.’

Ida Rolf in developing her 10 session Structural Integration series in the 1930’s was acutely aware that for her method to be truly wholistic it had to take into account the person’s perceptual experience too and the ten session Rolfing series that she devised pays attention as much to the clients internal feeling state as it does to inviting change in the physical structure. We know that some of her ideas came as a result of  cross pollination with her contemporaries, Mosche Feldenkrais, Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigard who where developing exciting new ways to see and interact with the body in the fields of movement and dance. All were perhaps influenced in tern by the newly emerging philosophical approach known as phenomenology.

Phenomenologists do not accept the traditional division of subject and object and instead attempted to study human beings in-the-world, as experienced. For a phenomenologist a person does not exist separately from the environment but is embedded in it

Bringing movement, strength and  balance into harmony

sprinter

Edward Reed (a leading Scholar in the field of ecological psychology) has carried the phenomenological perspective into his work with motor responses. Reed points out that movement never takes place in a vacuum but always in context and that lab studies that attempt to isolate and analyse movement do not yield very useful information and lead to very little that can be applied to the problem of rehabilitation. He suggests that to be useful, the study of posture and movement must be looked at in terms of functions that he calls Action Systems. Reed’s list of action systems include, among others, the locomotion system that gets us around, the expressive system that allows us to look and listen and the semantic system that lets us speak and represent. Seeing movement as purposeful activity through which we establish a relationship with our environment and each other begins to contribute to our understanding of actual behaviour.

The basic movements of lying, sitting, standing and walking are fundamental to our ability to function in the world. Underlying all of these is the even more basic necessity of establishing a viable relationship with the gravity field.

Our upright posture also defines us as a species bringing with it a specific set of gravitational challenges. For humans balancing on such a narrow base of support, constantly negotiating between stability and movement is a problem with significant psychological meaning. Our language reflects this in words that link verticality with morality and even more fundamentally, uprightness is a condition of survival.

Monkey-Man

Hubert Godard has revolutionised the way Rolfers think about how the body functions in gravity. (and Rolfers do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this !) Godard calls the body’s ability to organise itself in gravity, “tonic function.”

 

Two different muscle types

Anatomically, what Godard has named the Tonic system includes the brain, nerve pathways, fascia, muscle spindles, golgi tendon organs and postural muscles. Godard divides the individual fibres which, in bundles come together to form the skeletal muscles of the body into two distinct groups. Those that we have conscious control over – the movers – he calls “phasic” and those that keep us stable and upright in gravity, “tonic.” Most muscles in the body contain both types of fibre but all muscles depending on their function show a preponderance of one type or the other. So generally speaking and for the purposes of understanding how these two systems work together we can say that muscles are either tonic or phasic.

In very simple terms Phasic muscles move us, Tonic muscles keep us upright and balanced.

Tonic muscles like hamstrings, deep abdominal core and the deep spinal erectors are slow twitch muscle designed for endurance. They are the red meat in our bodies because they burn oxygen for fuel and therefore need a rich blood supply to deliver it.

Phasic muscles like the biceps, pectorals and quads are fast twitch, they burn sugar as fuel and can deliver huge amounts of power very rapidly but only for relatively short periods.

In order for the Phasic (movement) muscles to move us, the Tonic (stabilising) muscles which act like brakes, must first relax. This “letting the brakes off” is known as a “pre movement” and is part of and must precede every action we make.

Imagine you are standing and you raise your arm, the power for this action comes from contraction of the phasic muscles at the front of the shoulder. But the first muscles to respond as soon as we even think of making this movement are the tonic or gravity muscles. Guess where? Not in the shoulders or arm but way down at the back of the leg. The soleus muscles act as stabilisers preventing us falling forward under the gravitational weight of the cantilevered arm.

The degree to which we can relax the tonic system and allow “in-stability,” conditions the quality and efficiency of the movement that follows. Because we ordinarily have little conscious control of the Tonic system it is difficult to simply ‘will’ the brakes to release and would anyway, be way too slow and cumbersome. It has to be automatic to work efficiently.


The brain that controls the muscles – our need for automatic processing

connectomeIf you imagine the action of writing your signature on a cheque. This seemingly simple task actually requires the coordination of muscles in the hand, forearm, upper arm, shoulder, neck, face, eyes and so on. Some of these muscle will move the fingers, hand and arm, some to will need to let go, lengthen to allow this and some will be asked to switch on only partially to support, stabilise and maintain focus etc. If you now think about the thousands of individual motor and sensory neurones supplying each muscle which must be excited or inhibited by the brain like a conductor coordinating huge complicated orchestral piece, you will begin have some idea of how much computing power is needed for every movement we make. Actually, we know that to do all of this whilst maintaining all the other systems, which keep us alive at the same time; circulation, respiration, digestion etc, would be beyond even the 80 billion or so neurones in our huge brains.

So, the clever nervous system learns the movements we most often perform and writes automatic programs which it runs to tell the muscles what to do and in which order. These programs have been named Engrams by author Deane Juhan author of Job’s Body (an essential read for all Bodyworkers)

The amazing thing about these programs is that they are elastic and can adapt to the almost infinite positions and environments that we find ourselves in. So that for instance, whether you are writing your signature on a small piece of paper, on a blackboard, or in the sand at the beach the engram for that task will organise the muscle actions needed to allow your signature to be recognisable at every size.

These wonderful programs however, can be fragileand although operating for the most part beneath our every day awareness, are never the less listening to, influenced, changed and disrupted by what we think, feel and believe. Recognising when there is a glitch in an engram and knowing how to bring it back into balance with sensitive movement cues has been one of the most important evolutional changes in the work of Rolfers since Ida’s original pioneering start and much of our new understanding of how to work with perception and coordination has been thanks to the inspired research and generous sharing of Hubert Godard.

To understand more fully how all of this links with an individual’s mental and emotional state we have to look to MacCleans model of brain functionality which he named the “Triune brain.”

Embedded emotions

MacCleans’s model divides the brain into three layers classified according to function and age in terms of evolutionary development. The first and oldest layer is the reptilian brain, it takes care of the basic functions of survival including the fight or flight response. It is also from where the tonic system receives its instructions. Emotional associations take place in the paleomammalian or limbic level, a more recent evolutionary development. The third and most recent level in MacClean’s model is the neocortex which we share with only the higher primates and whales and dolphins. This layer gives us the ability to rationalise and find meaning.

So in simple terms, any unresolved trauma, deeply buried belief systems orunconscious emotional habits associated with certain movements or situations, will alert the body’s older and more primitive brain centres and the fight/flight system will be activated telling the tonic tissues that it is not safe to move. Because these muscles are stronger, more durable and controlled by the primitive, subconscious brain, any ideas that you may have about “letting go.” are easily overpowered.This situation ignites a kind of myofascial civil war. Muscles fibres which want to move you pitted against muscle fibres which want to keep you still. This is “Stress”it wastes energy, feels terrible and often leads to one or more secondary acute and then chronic stress related syndromes. With the body fighting itself in this way, movement of any kind will feel awkward and uncoordinated and will of course burn far more energy than you need to. Is it any wonder that many of us feel exhausted just getting through a normal day?

Ida Rolf and F. M. Alexander were among the first to devise ways of disrupting this cycle of activation. Recognising that the most profound changes come from the deepest psychological levels. By addressing the tonic function we can effect the basic senses of support and orientation without needing to talk about the associations involved. If we can help build a sense of support in the body (instead of breaking down armour as in the Reichian model) we will create deep change without ignoring the psychological significance and without going off into emotional history.

So as a Rolfer when I work in movement with a person’s orienting system, their relation to gravity, it  is useful to remember that I am addressing one of the most fundamental aspects of what it is to be human. I am tapping into something primordial, instinctive, pre-verbal a part that is constantly looking for reassuring answers to two simple questions, “how safe is my ground?” and “what are the possibilities of movement in this space?”

Of course the concept of safety is relative. Part of being a human is to be dependent upon other humans. Not all the time, of course. Similar to most mammals, we come into the world with great dependence on our caregivers, and that need to connect and be connected to others remains throughout our lives. As we mature, we need to find safe environments so that we can sleep, eat, defecate and reproduce. We create the safe environments by building walls to create boundaries and privacy. Or, we may get a dog, which will guard us, so we can sleep. The point of these strategies is to create an environment in which we no longer need to be hyper-vigilant, and to allow us to participate in the life processes that require “safe” environments.

Social engagement behaviours—making eye contact, listening to people—require that we give up our hyper-vigilance. This of course requires that we be able to quickly distinguish between friend or foe? But how do we do this ?

Experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled researchers to observe neural activity uniquely associated with perception of biological motion. With specific brain centres seemingly dedicated to detecting familiar faces, familiar voices and familiar movements.

The recent work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago has added considerably to our knowledge of how we interact with each other and our environments.

Dr Porges has proposed and developed what he has termed the Polyvagal Theory

Which specifies two functionally distinct branches of the vagus, or tenth cranial nerve. The branches of the vagal nerve serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch elicits immobilisationbehaviours (e.g., feigning death), whereas the more evolved branch is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviours. These functions follow a phylogenetic hierarchy, where the most primitive systems are activated only when the more evolved structures fail.

So hand gestures, facial expressions and vocalisations that appear “safe” turn off the brain stem and the limbic areas that include fight, flight and freeze responses. Furthermore, embedded within the lining of the gastrointestinal wall itself there is a massive plexus of nerves. This complex network of sensory, motor and interneurons (those nerve cells that connect between the sensory and motor neurones) integrates the digestive and eliminative organs so that they function coherently. The “gut brain” is an intricate system has about the same number of neurones and white matter as does a cat’s brain. Because of this complexity, it has sometimes been called the second or enteric brain; a forth to the other three layers described earlier.

The enteric nervous system is our oldest brain, evolving hundreds of millions of years ago. It produces many beneficial hormones, including 95% of the serotonin in the body, and thus is a primary natural medicine factory and warehouse for feel-good hormones. Amazingly, as much as 90% of the vagus nerve that connects our guts and brains is sensory! In other words, for every one motor nerve fibre that relays commands from the brain to the gut, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the viscera to the brain. The sensory fibres in the vagus nerve pick up the complex telecommunications going on in the gut and relay them, first up to the (mid) brain stem and then to the thalamus. From there, these signals virtually influence the entire brain, and subliminal “decisions” are made that profoundly influence our actions. Many of our likes and dislikes, our attractions and repulsions, as well as our irrational fears, are the result of these implicit computations in our internal states. Additionally, the linkage between the nerves that regulate the face and the nerves that regulate the heart and lungs implies that we can use the facial muscles to calm us down. Think about it: whenwe’re stressed or anxious, we use our facial muscles, which include the ears. We eat or drink, we listen to music, and we talk to people to calm down. The power of the social engagement system is amazing both in terms of its effects on behaviour and mental state, but also in terms of the speed with which it works

In this article we have looked at phenomenology, action systems, tonic function, engrams, the triune brain, the ‘gut brain’ and the polyvagal theory all in an attempt to understand how we humans maintain a healthy posture as interact with our environments and each other. But perhaps when all is said and done it could have been more simply stated with the phrase,

Smile and the world smiles with you :)

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