Your brain is amazing, I know this won’t come as a shock to anyone but it really really is. In fact, you can’t really imagine how amazing your brain really is, and that’s a bit of a strange sentence if you think about it. While it’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around the sheer awesome power of our brain, no pun intended, but let’s take a look at what your brain is doing right now, just to put things into perspective.
It’s taking pressure differentials in the air in the room you’re in and converting them into sounds and you hear. It’s taking reflective light, collecting, processing it and you see. Then it’s taking the things you hear and the things you see and puts meaning to them. When you’re having a conversation with someone it’s processing the language and the context and the subtle signs about the way that person inflects and moves and you understand the nuance and context of what they’re saying. Then on top of all that it’s keeping your body temperature regulated, keeping your heart rate constant, your lungs, your liver, your kidneys it’s regulating everything, right now, as we speak. Your stupendously amazing brain is a result of millions of years of evolution. To keep our cave dwelling ancestors alive, it developed certain processes and one of those is fight or flight, basically when we’re faced with danger, we can choose to stand our ground, or run like hell. Join me if you will, in a short thought experiment.
It’s about 3 million years ago and your cave dwelling ancestor, Homo Erectus, the predecessor of modern humans, and the first proto-human to engage in tool making, is roaming the African savannah and all of a sudden out of the blue comes a lion, a huge angry pre-historic lion. Your brain registers the danger. It knows that you’re not taking on this lion so it starts a process to get you ready to hightail it out of there. Your Sympathetic Nervous System kicks into action and tells your adrenal medulla to flood your blood stream with ephinephrine which in turn produces a chemical called cortisol, which increases your blood pressure, your blood sugars and surpasses your immune system. Your brain essentially takes everything that’s going to aid your escape and turns it into overdrive, anything that won’t help, or will inhibit your ability to fight or run gets put on the back burner. Your liver gets a signal to start pumping out glucose to create a huge burst of energy, your fat cells start getting incinerated to produce even more energy. The adrenaline which is now pulsing through your blood stream also does many more things, some of the more relevant can include.
- Your Heart and lungs beat harder and faster
- Your stomach and upper GI tract grind to a halt and digestion stops
- The sphincters in your body and your bladder all begin the… evacuation process
- The blood vessels in your muscles start to dilate to increase blood flow
- Your mouth goes dry
- Your pupils dialate
- Your hearing can go
- You can get tunnel vision
- Your whole body starts to shake because your brain has disinhibited your spinal reflexes
This is all incredibly hard on your body, but it’s the price our squishy ancestors had to pay to survive. To quote Bill Nye the Science Guy. It never should have been called survival of the fittest. It should have been survival of the good enough, because our bodies are not perfectly designed, but rather we need to play the hand we’ve been dealt.
Your brain is an amazing organ and it’s probably the only reason that our fledgling mammalian and proto-human ancestors survived the rule of huge carnivores long enough to evolve into you and me.
There is one thing that your brain isn’t great at though. Context.
Let’s run through a second thought experiment. This time, instead of hundreds of thousands of years ago, it’s present day. And instead of a hungry pre-historic lion, you’re facing an unending traffic jam, you have a huge presentation, you’re going to be late, your boss is going to kill you.
The exact. Same. Things. Happen.
You’re brain is incapable of distinguishing a real threat like a lion, from one that you manufacture yourself, like an angry boss or a missed deadline. To put it in the words of Dr Amit Sood Chair of the Mayo Mind and Body Initiative at the Mayo Clinic, imagine someone lights a match inside your house, but you’re incapable of telling the difference from that match and a five-alarm fire. So every time someone strikes that match, you call the fire department.
We have, inside our brains a big red button, one thats designed to get pushed once or twice a lifetime, if at all. And a great many of us are pushing that button all day, every day, and it’s killing us.
So what do we do to stop it? We stop writing our story. You see, a traffic jam is not the scary thing that your brain reacts to. What your brain reacts to is the story that you create once you get in that traffic jam. You’re not getting fired, you’re thinking about getting fired, you’re not getting reamed out by an angry boss, you’re thinking about an angry boss. You’re creating the Lion. You ARE the Lion.
We’re killing ourselves by living inside of our heads and creating lions.
Think back to the last time that you were angry, or sad, or scared. What was really making you upset? Was it the situation? Or was it the tapestry that you painted in your mind which was inspired by the situation? How many times have you had an argument with a colleague and then spent the rest of the day playing the argument over and over in your brain and on each replay you think of an even wittier comeback that you could have said. How many times have you received news that a project would be delayed, or a shipment was ordered wrong or a deadline wouldn’t be met and then went inside of your brain and walked through all of the terrible things that were going to happen because of it. You were pushing that big red button. Your brain reacted to your imagined disaster the exact same way it would to a real one because it didn’t have a choice. In the environment in which we evolved, those of our ancestors that reacted the fastest to danger got away to live another day, those that decided to wait to see if the lion’s teeth were really all that big…. didn’t. We are the ancestors of those who’s brains didn’t wait. So we need to be very very careful about when we push that button. How do we do that, we stop writing the story. When we’re stuck in traffic, that’s all. Let that be all. You’re stuck in traffic the end, allow yourself to sit in the situation, to experience it and to see it for what it is. The way we can do that is by becoming more present.
Presence is a term that I’ve mentioned many times before and it’s just that. Being present in your day to day life. The time spent thinking of all the awful things that will happen when you get to work late, is time not spent in the present moment. The time spent re-playing that perfect come back is not time spent in the present moment. Have you ever driven home and when you pulled in the driveway, realized that you have absolutely no memory of the drive? To stop the constant state of stress that we find ourselves in, all we have to do is to be here. We all spend so much time thinking about what has happened what did happen and what could happen that we’ve forgotten how to just be here and acknowledge what IS happening. It’s so easy to be here, once you’ve realized that you’re not. In fact, realizing that you’re not being present, is the first step to becoming present. The second, is as easy as breathing. Buddhist Monk and meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh summarizes the first and most important step in becoming more mindful in 16 simple but beautifully profound words that have absolutely changed my life.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out
The next time you’re stuck in traffic, or that you’ve learned that your paper work didn’t make it to shipping in time, take just two minutes, say those 16 simple words, and watch your breath, breathe in and out, and just notice it, if it’s shallow, or fast, or laboured, don’t judge it, just notice it and breathe. Thoughts will stray into your mind during these two minutes, but that’s ok, acknowledge that they’re there and they’ll leave the way they came. Take two minutes, for yourself, and just breathe.
I’d like everyone reading this, to stop what you’re doing. Take just a few minutes with me, and breathe, let yourself just be here with your breath.
Your brain is an amazingly powerful ally. You are in control and you can stop pushing the button. The things that we spend our lives in fear of are simply creations that, when you look at them in the correct light, show you the awesome power that is your mind.
You don’t need to fear the lion.
You are the Lion.