Learning to drive your mind.

We all have a standard human brain and they’re all exactly the same. Any one human brain is capable of doing and behaving in exactly the same way as any other human brain, and this includes the best and the worst of human endeavours.

This was how Prof Paul Gilbert opened a talk on Evolution, Compassion and Happiness this week arranged by Action for Happiness. Starting from an evolutionary angle provided an interesting perspective which makes total sense if you think about it. The higher human brain functions which evolved over the last two million years or so created a step-change increase in intelligence, logic and reason, but the new functionality also brought a unique set of downsides such as self-criticism, fearful imagination and shame. These downsides combine with an inbuilt negativity bias that’s common to all animals (it’s better to be safe than sorry and to assume the worst) to create the negative self-talk and rumination that plagues many of us.

In school we’re taught facts, history, languages and maths. We might be taught about the physiology of the human brain from a Western perspective, but we’re not taught the practicalities of how the brain works, how to get the best out of it and how to be happy. We never learn to drive our own mind!

It turns out that mindfulness and compassion together help us learn to detach from an over-active mind and in so doing to harness the full potential and power of the human brain.

This is powerful stuff, in fact Prof Gilbert went on to explain that true compassion consists of sensitivity to the distress of yourself and others along with a deep commitment to try to relieve or prevent it. So compassion is both an awareness of suffering or distress and an active desire to do something about it. Far from compassion being a ‘soft skill’, true compassion is incredibly courageous. You may have to think about this connection between compassion and courage for a while.

A quirk of the human mind is the ability to generate emotions and physical bodily reactions on demand. If you choose to think about a recent argument you can actually make yourself physically angry; your body will prepare itself to fight! If you think erotic thoughts you can even stimulate your body to be sexually aroused! As far as we know, no other animal has this ability to consciously affect the mind and the body, and it’s this curious feature of the human mind-body system that is developed through mindfulness practice.

We’re actually pretty familiar with the idea of getting ‘psyched up’ for say a meeting or a sports game, but what we’re not so familiar with in the West is the exact opposite response which is our ability to make an active choice to ‘psych down’ the mind and body. Mindfulness trains us to bring the mind to a state of rest and to connect into a state of being rather than doing. Then by adding kindness and compassion practices to mindfulness we can learn to self-generate compassion for ourselves and others.

The final piece of the jigsaw is what’s called eudemonic happiness, which means long-term happiness or human flourishing, and eudemonic happiness is grounded in positive emotion. So mindfulness and compassion practices work together to stimulate the brain’s relaxation response to create a sense of happiness and wellbeing. This calms the body and opens up the brain’s higher functions of intelligence, intellect and creativity.

So from evolutionary psychology we understand that the brain has a stress response and a relaxation response, and that crucially we are able to consciously trigger these responses. Every human brain is more or less the same so we understand that the mind is generated, and it has the capacity to be re-generated or re-wired. We practice mindfulness and compassion to trigger the relaxation response and to create a habit of calming the mind and the body.

Prof. Gilbert took us on a fascinating story from evolution and ancient meditative traditions through to modern physiology, psychology and long-term happiness. He encouraged us to detach from the mind that drives us on autopilot and to learn to take control and drive our own minds, or as he put it “To become mindful of nature’s mind.”

In Praise of a Slow Ride

There I was on a hot summer evening in Soho having just finished a great coaching session with a client, heading to the nearest tube station to take the London underground home and thinking to myself how much I didn’t want to get into an unbearably hot, stuffy and overcrowded tube carriage. So I stopped in the street, thought for a moment and hit on the idea of cycling home using the public cycle hire scheme we have in London. It would be a lovely way to enjoy the great weather and as it’s pretty much downhill all the way the ride wouldn’t be too taxing!

The bikes are normally blue but this summer there’s a limited number of yellow bikes to celebrate the Tour de France coming through London and as I arrived at the bicycle stand there was a special yellow bike among the blue bikes. I felt like Charlie finding the golden ticket in a chocolate bar and took it as a good sign.

As soon as I set off I immediately felt a joyful freedom as the hot evening air caressed my skin. (You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a hot weather summer person!) London does have hot weather in the summer but you never know when it will arrive or how long it will last, so it always feels like a special treat. I cycled through Trafalgar Square taking in London at her best, the spectacular architecture luxuriously framed by soaring, majestic London plane trees. Although I was surrounded by people in the busy city I was a self-contained bubble; it was time out by myself without any distraction from mobile devices which were safely out of reach in my bag.

The next landmark was Waterloo Bridge which affords the most spectacular panoramic view of London across the river Thames. Now one thing about the public bikes is that they’re heavy and the gears are slow so it’s absolutely impossible to ride fast. As I lumbered over Waterloo Bridge I became aware of dozens of cyclists whizzing past me on their super-fast racers, heads down missing the view and the experience, their minds focused on reaching their destination as soon as possible. I felt lucky that I was on the slowest bike, head up, enjoying the slowness and the wonderful view. I felt physically elated by the experience and by how fortunate I felt in that moment.

Soon enough I was home where the utopian journey did have an imperfect sting in its tail; the bike docking station was completely full! But I was in such a great mood from the ride that I wasn’t going to let this inconvenience ruin it. I took a deep breath, checked my frustration and set off towards a nearby docking station with an open mind; what more might this magical journey be about to give?

Sure enough the forced detour took me up the local high street; there was a launch party in the courtyard of White Cube the local art gallery and the street was buzzing with people enjoying the summer evening. After I successfully docked at the next docking station the short walk back to my apartment took me through the local park: the final gift of the journey had been to remind me how much I love my local neighbourhood.

As I walked through the park I thought about the combination of factors that had contributed to the wonderful experience I just enjoyed:

  • Spontaneity in seizing the moment

  • Switching off auto-pilot and breaking a habit by not catching the tube

  • Enjoying time out by myself

  • Being forced to slow down by the cumbersome bike

  • Being removed from the distraction (or temptation!) of mobile devices

  • Fully appreciating my surroundings by being present in the moment

  • Seeing that a small set-back added to the overall experience

Click SOURCE below for the original article on The Huffington Post.

Kindness Starts with Yourself

It seems as though we could all do with a generous dollop of kindness right now, and despite what some may think, there’s evidence that kindness is alive and well in the UK. The UK Kindness Report, from postcode lottery website PickMyPostcode.com and researcher Dr Carol Haigh, has looked at how people across the UK carry out kind acts to loved ones or strangers.

The report shows that two thirds of Brits (66%) volunteer their time for free for a community event or charitable cause on a regular basis and that one in three (33%) aim to carry out an act of kindness each day. Making an extra effort to be kind is especially important during stressful times because stress triggers us to act in unkind ways, so we can become more self-focused. In times of stress, the very idea of being kind can seem like a luxury at best. At worst, it just seems foolish, but this is to overlook the magical so called “cascade effect” of kindness. Researchers have shown that kindness is contagious because it passes from person to person to person, so a small act of kindness can reverberate far more widely than the sphere of influence of the originating kind act.

So I want more kindness in my life, where do I start? Well, counter-intuitively authentic kindness starts with being kind to yourself. Sure you can just go out and do good or volunteer but if you’re judging yourself harshly or not forgiving yourself for past mistakes then any act of kindness will be conditional, the real incentive will be to make you feel better about yourself. Authentic kindness is much more powerful because it’s unconditional; it is kindness without any strings attached and without looking for any pay-back.

Once you start being kind, truly kind, to yourself then your capacity to give out kindness will greatly increase. So this means forgiving yourself for past mistakes. An example for me is that I still sometimes beat myself up for leaving Channel 4 TV to join a start-up LGBT TV channel that didn’t ultimately get off the ground. It takes a conscious effort to remind myself that I made the decision at the time with the right intent to further my career and to serve the LGBT community. My decision was based on the best information I had at the time. So I have a choice, I can criticise myself because things didn’t turn out the way I wanted or I can treat myself with compassion and kindness. Neither choice changes the past but being kind to myself allows me to draw a line, to learn and to move forward with confidence and self-respect.

Being kind to yourself means speaking less harshly to yourself. I encourage you to notice your self-talk after reading this blog; is it mainly positive self-talk or negative self-talk? Notice the negative self-talk and ask yourself “would I criticise a friend as harshly as I am speaking to myself”? If the answer to the question is “No” then start making an effort to speak to yourself with more respect and kindness. It can be helpful to consider that at any point in time everyone is muddling through life with the best intention given the hand they have been dealt and the information they have available at the time. We’re all imperfect leading imperfect lives.

As the ancient Greek story-teller Aesop observed, “No act of kindness now matter how small, is ever wasted”. So I invite you to start practicing self-kindness right now and you’ll find kindness gets easier with practice. Try opening up your world to kindness and notice what happens; notice how you see the world from a different perspective and notice how the world reacts differently to a kinder you.

To kick off here are four simple steps to bring more kindness into your life:

  1. Start by being kind to yourself

  2. Treat yourself to a Loving-Kindness guided mediation (you?ll find plenty on Google or Youtube).

  3. Aim to carry out at least one Random Act of Kindness every day

  4. Get out into nature which boosts kindness (as well as happiness and creativity!)

Click SOURCE below to read the original article on The Huffington Post