Sunday, August 30, 2009

Be a Brain Scientist

To think is to practice brain chemistry.” - Deepak Chopra

Have you ever heard someone say, “Well, I’m no brain scientist…”? Quite recently I had lunch with a friend while he was on a break from work. When he ordered a beer I raised my eyebrows in mock astonishment. He replied “It’s not like I’m performing brain surgery later.”

But we are all brain scientists. Our thoughts really do affect our brain chemistry. And we can be like surgeons in our ability to carefully excise negative thoughts from our gray matter.

Our patterns of thought are simply habits, but they are grounded in rich neural circuitry. Like deer in the woods, our thoughts form paths that will most likely be retread unless we consciously set out to find a new way. The first step to that new way is to be aware that thoughts can either be unconscious or conscious.

Fortunately, the unconscious variety is actually very short-lived. You experience these when you have an emotional reaction to a trigger in your environment. For example: you’re walking on a road and come upon a rattling snake. When you see and hear the snake, a circuit in your brain trips to tell you the environment isn’t safe. For a short time hormones, or chemical messengers, flood your body and you are in “fight or flight” mode. You stifle a scream and run in the opposite direction.

Brain research has shown that the time from the trigger through the hormone’s release and complete dissolution in your bloodstream is only 90 seconds. If you are still anxious and uncomfortable after that brief period, it is because you are continuing to tell the story of the snake in your path—even though it is far away and not able to harm you.

When you continue to think of the snake you are “hooking” back into the fear-based circuitry, even though your environment is now safe. It is important to pay close attention to how much time we spend hooked into the circuitry of negative emotions. Getting caught up in these loops for long periods of time can cause us to get stuck in a groove like a warped 45, and they can lead to feelings of depression and powerlessness.

The challenge, then, is not to get hooked. The challenge is to choose to think other thoughts, thoughts that feel better, like, “I’m glad I was paying attention and avoided upsetting that snake.”

To take another example, let’s say I am thinking about my 4-year-old son, Finn. Thinking about him is a specific circuit in my brain. Each thought I think about him can either trigger me to feel very strong positive or negative emotions.

In my brain, thoughts of Finn and the emotional circuitry of joy are intimately linked. Usually, I smile just thinking of him. Right now as I’m writing this and thinking of him I’m reminded of a song he has been singing lately, the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine.” But Finn sings it “Good Day, Some Time.” It cracks me up every time.

But there are also other occasions when I am likely to feel bad when I think of him. Just tonight we went into an office supply store so that I could buy a phone, and he picked up a big package of chalk and asked to buy it. I said no and reminded him that he already had a big bucket of chalk at home. He again asserted his desire for the chalk, and I again declined to buy it. He burst into tears and was inconsolable for a few minutes.

When I think of that exchange I feel bad. I wish he hadn’t wanted the chalk. I wish I had been able to negotiate his request better and been able to mitigate the tears. I wish I had been less tired after a day of caring for him and his needs. I know that I could have been more patient and handled the situation better and the fact that I didn’t is the source of negative emotion.

So now I have a choice: focus on his happy song or his frustrated tears. In the moment of thinking either thought, and tripping its underlying emotional and physiological circuitry, my mouth will either lift in a smile or purse in a frown. Those strong thoughts and feelings have the potential to jump instantly into my mind. But I always have the power to consciously choose which emotional and physiological loops I want to hook into.

Realizing that you can be aware of your neural circuitry and choose whether or not to engage it is a powerful tool. If you are triggered, learning to give yourself 90 seconds to breathe through the release and dissolution of the negative chemical messengers, and then learning to choose a different, better-feeling thought will help you go a long way on your path to happiness.

This week I'm rejoicing in my child's happy song.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Boy and His Uncle

My younger (by 12 years) brother spent a day with us last week and it was so much fun. He lives in NYC so we don't get to see him as much as we'd like, but it is always great when we do. He has always been wonderful with G. But there has been an interesting development since we last saw him in June: G got a hand-me-down video game system from his older cousins. (A Game Boy, I think. I really don't know.) I never played home video games as a kid (I did enjoy the occasional trip to the arcade for a game of Pac Man, but that was the extent of it.), and so I have no idea how to help my young son with his new interest. His dad tries his best, but he's not much help either.

So it was with great joy that G discovered that his uncle not only knew how to play the game (Super Mario? Again, I'm not sure.), but he was a skilled teacher as well. I wasn't thrilled that the game came to the dinner table (that's them asking for one more minute in the pic below), but their enthusiasm was contagious (and they did put it away after a minute) and truly delightful.

And, amazingly, the game was even put away for classic old-school boy fun - toy soldiers!

All in all it was a fabulous visit. This week I'm rejoicing in the wonderful bond between my boy and his uncle.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Full Sun Farm 15th Week!

What's in the Box:
Green or Red Leaf Lettuce
Summer Squash
Red Sweet Peppers
Green Beans
Edamame Soybeans

I would never suggest that you do anything with the watermelon other than open it and eat it (although chunks of watermelon with feta and kalamata olives and a light drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar is divine). That done, if you have the time and curiosity, I suggest that you use the rind as well. This recipe for pickled watermelon rind is originally from the magazine Bon Ap├ętit.

* 1 4-pound piece watermelon, quartered
* 8 cups water
* 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons coarse salt

* 2 cups sugar
* 1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
* 8 whole cloves
* 8 whole black peppercorns
* 2 cinnamon sticks
* 1/2 teaspoon pickling spice
* 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
* 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Cut watermelon pulp from rind, leaving thin layer of pink on rind. Cut green outer skin from rind; discard. Cut enough rind into 1 x 1/2-inch pieces to measure 4 cups. Combine 8 cups water and 2 tablespoons salt in large pot; bring to boil. Add rind pieces and boil until tender, about 5 minutes. Strain. Transfer rinds to large metal bowl. Combine remaining 2 teaspoons salt, sugar and next 7 ingredients in heavy large saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour over watermelon rinds in bowl. Place plate atop rinds to keep rinds submerged in pickling liquid. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. Strain liquid from rinds into saucepan; bring to boil. Pour over rinds. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Repeat straining and boiling of liquid and pour over rinds 1 more time. (Can be made 2 weeks ahead. Chill in covered jars.)

The small bush you see is edamame--green soybeans--and this is the first year we have received them from the farm. I'm delighted to see them so close to their original form. A simple way to prepare them is to remove the pods from the stems and boil them for about 20 minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice, and when they are cool eat the beans directly from the pod. They are also good marinated in soy sauce.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Don't Worry. I Got This.

Last week I wrote about the power of your story in anticipation of meeting 12 women for The Power of Your Story event I was hosting. All of the women were truly amazing and I would love to write about each one of them. Today, with her permission, I will tell the story of one of them.

Patricia Alcivar is the most inspiring women I’ve ever met – and I’ve known a lot of inspiring women. She is an incest survivor and left her family to live on the streets of NYC when she was 15 years old. She developed a friendship with a trainer who became the first person to believe in her and her talents and taught her to box.

She worked hard and eventually made it to the first ever Women's National Amateur Boxing Championship. She says, “I had just come from a recent loss at the NYC Golden Gloves when I really should have won. It was a complete robbery, but my trainer taught me the valuable lesson of never ever giving up no matter what. We trained harder and went to the Nationals and fought each of the 3 opponents with skill and determination to get me into the finals.”

For the final championship match she was paired against Leona Brown (better known as “Little Tyson” for her sheer ruthlessness), who had just won every one of her previous matches in this competition with a knockout. Patricia’s friends could barely hide their concern for her safety and doubt for her ability to win.

At the weigh-in her opponent “talked trash” about her and even shoved her, but Patricia remained calm. As her friends complained and criticized the other player’s behavior, Patricia felt calm and centered. She didn’t know where her clarity came from, but she told her friends with utmost confidence, “Don’t worry. I got this.”

And she did. She handily beat “Little Tyson” with her skill, talent and extraordinary determination. That performance led her to be the first woman in history to be voted athlete of the year by the USOC (United States Olympic Committee). Patricia is currently training as a professional for the world championship title. My money is definitely on her to win it.

Patricia’s story is a profound testament to what can be achieved when you realize that negative events and circumstances don’t define you, but you define you. You always have the ability to choose your response in any situation.

But what if you don’t feel you have Patricia’s level of determination to achieve your goals and dreams? What can you do to develop the ability to choose your response and define your story for yourself?

The answer is simple, though it can be tough to put it into practice. You can become aware of your inner voice.

When you heed your inner voice (or what some call a “gut feeling”), you strengthen your intuition – your best guide to creating a life you love. And when you honor your intuition, your awareness will change in a myriad of amazing and unexpected ways

If you listen to it, your intuition will first make you aware of an astonishing number of so-called coincidences. Things will start to “fit” in ways you never dreamed they could. Soon these coincidences will seem less like coincidences and more like signposts—turning points in the road to a desired destination, whether or not you know what that destination is. And then, after a while, you will experience life as a constantly unfolding miracle in which everything you need is ready at hand right when you need it—and sometimes even before you know you did.

That’s not to say that you’ll enjoy everything that happens, just that as time goes by the challenges and crises of your life will come to seem like the necessary training for the challenges you must confront on the way to your best life.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that, if you give your challenges the proper attention, they can help you focus on what you do want. Three months after my son was born I felt I needed to return to work. My work as a midwife required that I spend 24-hours shifts in the hospital and I didn’t want to be separated from my nursing infant for such extended periods of time. When I thought the financial necessity of returning to work required an unwanted separation from my child, I felt awful – I knew I didn’t want that.

The realization of what I didn’t want helped me form the desire for what I did want: I decided I would work in the hospital and bring my son with me. At the time it was absolutely unprecedented for a mother to bring her baby to work, and I had to work hard to convince the administration of its feasibility, but I did it and my child (and my husband who cared for him while I was seeing patients) came to work with me for over a year and a half. And I have to say that it wasn’t easy to juggle caring for my own child and caring for my patients, but it was worth it. Just like drawing something by drawing the space around it, you can find out your best life by paying close attention to your feelings—especially the ones you don’t want, or don’t feel you have a right to listen to—as you observe the life you have.

More importantly, though, your intuition can find in the challenges of your life all the evidence you need that you’re ready for something greater. As I wrote in my Providence Moves article, almost 10 years ago I knew I wanted more from my life but it took a little while before I figured out that it was living and working in remote Mexican villages. Did this seem impossible for a while? Yes. Was I scared to commit to that path? Absolutely. But as I looked at a life that was otherwise satisfactory I felt such a strong sense something was missing that I saw how much greater the life I really wanted was, and that if I chose, I could make it happen.

It may take some time before you hear it, too, but when you finally get the big thing your inner voice is trying to tell you, you will also hear it say, “Don’t worry. I got this.” It may be too small for you to hear it easily. It may be crowded out by all the other messages competing for your attention. But you can become aware of it. And using its wisdom is a great way to create your own powerful story.

But what do you do about those competing messages? What can you do to meet the challenges with openness for what they have to teach you about your life and what you most want? As I said, it takes some practice. But practicing your intuition is a lot more straightforward than you might think.

Try this exercise: take five minutes today (and every day from now on) and find a comfortable, quiet place to sit and think.

During this time think about what has happened in the day that most challenged you and ask, “What was that supposed to teach me? Can I find what was good and necessary about it?”

Then allow your intuition, your quiet inner voice, to offer the answer. When the 5 minutes is up, write your thoughts down. If you do this every day you will be astounded by how many people and situations show up in order to give you answers. More and more you will hear your inner voice saying, “Don’t worry. I got this.”

P.S. If you want to see phenomenal pictures of Patricia, Google her or go to Facebook and ask to be her "friend" - she's super friendly and I know she would love to know that you enjoyed hearing some of her story. (If you haven't already, "friend" me, too!)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Full Sun Farm Week 14!

What's in our Box:

Lettuce Mix
Swiss Chard
Green Beans or Romano (Italian Flat) Beans
Blueberries (Back again?! Hooray!)

Notes Inspired from the Farm:

I love that I can offer a potato soup that highlights the pungent flavor of fresh parsley. (Using it only as a garnish seems like a waste to me.) Make the soup in the morning and then chill in the fridge and it is a delightful, cooling summer supper. This recipe is adapted from the Deborah Madison's wonderful Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone. (The original recipe calls for parsley root - a kind of parsley that forms a white, carrot-shaped root below ground - in addition to fresh parsley, but it's not available at this time of year, so I use carrots instead.)

1 1/2 lbs potatoes
2 carrots
1 1/2 tbsp butter or olive oil
6 shallots or 1 onion, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups chopped parsley
salt and freshly milled pepper
6 cups water or vegetable stock
1/3 cup cream (or additional water)

Quarter the potatoes lengthwise and thinly slice. Grate the carrots. Melt the butter in a soup pot and add the potatoes, carrots, onion, and bay leaves. Cook over medium heat 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Raise the heat, add the wine, and let it reduce until syrupy. Add 1 1/2 cups of the parsley, 1 1/2 tsp salt, and the water, bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the potatoes have broken apart, about 30 minutes. Stir in the cream and remaining parsley and heat through. Taste for salt and season with pepper. Remove the bay leaves and serve.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Power of Your Story

Today I met 12 other amazing women at an event I hosted this afternoon to have a conversation about this very topic. I wish all of my friends could have joined us! That’s why I want to share this article with you. I hope we can continue today’s conversation here!

Many people go through life creating by default; they just aren’t clear about what they really want. They become hung up on how much is going wrong in their life or in the world. And once that happens, they start to tell a story—they construct a narrative around the grim details that have captured their attention. “People ask too much of me.” “My house is a mess.” “I don’t have enough money to do what I really want.” We’ve all heard these tales, and what’s worse, we’ve all told them. It’s really easy to let those thoughts weigh us down and sap our creative energy.

So how do you say “Cut!”? How do you stop telling the bad stories and start telling the good ones? To begin, you need to understand that events are not part of a narrative, that they simply happen. When you see that all events are neutral, you then recognize that the stories you see behind them are your stories—good, bad or indifferent. If you can reserve judgment, you give yourself a chance to let events unfold.

Once you do that, you can move on to create another story, one that feels better, one with a chance at a happy ending. That choice may seem to be a stretch sometimes, but like any exercise, it will become easier with time. Soon it becomes second nature to reflect on what you’re perceiving, see the tragedy you’ve started composing in your head, and then move on to craft that better-feeling story. The peace that comes with that choice is its own reward. But it gets even better: in time, your new story will have a ripple effect, creating positive results that will astound you.

Research shows that when you consistently engage in the practice of identifying your stressful, negative thoughts and find alternative and better-feeling thoughts you are creating new neural pathways that will lead to long-lasting benefits – decreased anxiety and depression and increased ability to find creative solutions, and ultimately satisfaction and happiness.

Of course, it’s not realistic to think that you can go immediately from a bad-feeling thought to a happy place. More than anything, you’re looking for a feeling of relief from where you were a moment ago. Feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or depressed by what is happening in your life right now is only a problem if you can’t think of what it is you want to be different. Still not sure? Let me walk you through an example from my own life.

Quite recently, an administrator in my hospital announced that at best, everyone in the hospital would receive a minimal raise this year. Even if we did everything right, all we could hope for was 2.5%, when exemplary employees would normally get 5%. After I heard this, I had some pretty stressful thoughts – among them were fears that the hospital was going to lay off employees—and that I could be among them! I also told myself that I had been counting on a raise, and everyone needs at least a 3% increase in salary every year to just meet the rising cost of living.

After a few minutes of those thoughts (a few very painful minutes), I realized that I was telling a story. I then challenged myself to find an alternative, better-feeling story; here is what I came up with:

“I don’t know that the hospital will need to lay off employees. In fact, I know they recently hired new employees. They are probably cutting back on raises so they don’t have to lay off people, or cut salaries (and I know many businesses are doing both).”

“I am grateful for my job and will keep appreciating all of the good things that I enjoy about it. If I need more money this year, I can always find other ways to make it or I will find ways to spend less. I trust that I always have whatever I need.”

I felt so much better after this internal self-talk. It made me feel powerful and abundant at the same time. And the facts hadn’t changed: all I had done was realize that the facts were neutral, that they included a few things I had chosen not to see, that I was telling a story I didn’t like—and that I had the power to tell a different one.

How about you? Have you ever been aware of a negative thought and tried to “talk” yourself to a better-feeling place? If not, are you willing to try now?

This week I'm rejoicing in meeting 12 amazing women to share our powerful stories - and that I always have the ability to tell the better-feeling story!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Full Sun Farm 13th Week!

What's in the Box:
Red or Green Leaf Lettuce
Swiss Chard
Green Beans
Cherry Tomatoes

We still had a pound of green beans left from last week. Coupled with the pound we got this week I knew I needed to get serious about preparing them.

Hence the roasted green bean salad we're having for dinner tonight! The beans and garlic are roasting as I write this and quite a heady smell is coming from the kitchen!

This recipe, by the way, is another favorite from The New Vegetarian Epicure.

2 lbs green beans
1 head garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 large red tomatoes
balsamic vinegar to taste
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil

Wash and trim the green beans, and separate and peel the cloves of garlic. Reserve one small clove of garlic and toss the remaining garlic and the beans in a bowl with half the olive oil, salt to taste, and a few grinds of black pepper. Spread them evenly over two baking sheets and roast them in an oven pre-heated to 400 degrees for about 40 minutes. Stir and turn the beans at least once during the course of roasting. The roasting time will vary with the size of the beans--they are done when they have a somewhat wrinkled and blistered look, with light-brown spots here and there. A marvelous toasty fragrance will alert you.

While the beans are roasting, peel the tomatoes and chop them, keeping all the juice. Mince the reserved clove of garlic, combine the tomatoes, their juice, the garlic, the remaining olive oil, some balsamic vinegar, a little salt and pepper, and the chopped basil. Crush everything together a bit to blend the flavors. When the beans are ready, transfer them to a big, shallow bowl and pour the tomato dressing over them. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

I need to get back to the kitchen to make the dressing. I hope you are enjoying the local flavors in your area. I'd love to hear what you're eating!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"I'm not Shaq" - And Some Other Thoughts on Creating Peace

One of my coaching clients is struggling because she feels angry and resentful about a perceived injustice. Her tribunal of friends all agree: she was wronged. When in the midst of a conflict it can be challenging but helpful to ask yourself this question: Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?

When you want to be happy, or at least peaceful, you don’t have to wait for the transgressor to “get it” and make amends. You can simply choose to be happy, or at least peaceful. To illustrate this point I’d like you to consider Shaquille O’Neal.

A lot of suffering comes from the thought that reality should be different than it is. We think people shouldn’t act the way they are acting - they should act in a manner that is pleasing to us. And very often we have the tribunal agreeing with us.

So that’s the first reason to allow Shaq into your consciousness. Because you have in him a highly-trained athlete—a champion at his sport—who sometimes messes up. That’s right: Shaq is going to win some games and he is going to lose some games, no matter how much his fans want him to win all the time. No matter how much his fans think he should win all the time.

Now look at the people in your life. None of us is paid millions of dollars and ensured the cheers of the masses as a reward for making others in our lives happy. Nobody gets a championship ring for being selfless; nobody gets a college scholarship for conflict resolution. Truth be told, we probably don’t even give others in our lives a lot of positive reinforcement for making us happy.

Shaq loses the occasional game, and there’s nothing his fans can do about it. The people in our lives can make us unhappy. And once again, there’s not a lot we can do to change them. People are going to be who they are. But in any conflict, you can do something about the other person—you. You can do a lot about how you perceive the situation.

Enter Shaq, again. Because if you have been hurt or frustrated by someone’s behavior, you might want to try practicing non-attachment, otherwise known as the art of not taking things personally. If someone has hurt or frustrated me it’s because I (at least at one time) cared about how the person behaved. And I’ve learned to take the heat out of a conflict by playing with the idea that it has nothing to do with me. That it involves someone else, someone as unlike me as possible. Someone like a certain 7-foot tall champion basketball player.

Try it: when faced with conflict or criticism, receive the other person’s words or actions as if they were directed at Shaq. Because if a stranger called you and said, “Hey Shaq, you lost that game last night! You are a LOSER!” you would find the exchange odd, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t take it personally. You would say, “Um, I’m not Shaq.” and end the conversation. Declining to react negatively can really be that simple—though it does take some practice – and helps create peace.

And finally, one of the hardest things about rolling with conflict is dealing with our own failure, our own culpability. And that’s where another champion basketball player comes in. Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve failed over and over again in my life.” Somehow we don’t usually connect failure with Michael Jordan and yet he also said that failing helped him succeed. And it’s true for all of us. There is not one of us who is perfect and above reproach - we all fail over and over again. And we all have the same opportunity to learn from our failures, get back in the game and have some fun.

This week I'm rejoicing in...Facebook! I'm having so much fun over there. If you haven't already, I wish you would join me. If you were over there you'd see a really cool picture of Shaq along with this article. (I couldn't figure out how to put it up here.)

If you follow my blog, you've probably noticed that the frequency of posts has diminished. I am spending more time over at my Facebook page. I really enjoy posting daily messages that are grounded in positive psychology and they often lead to fun discussions. So if you'd like to join me, just go to Facebook and search for me, Stacey Curnow. Hope to see you there!