Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D. - Building An Inside-Out Life - Part 2


I posted part one of this series from Douglas LaBier's The New Resiliency blog (Psychology Today) a few days back - and the author was kind to let me know part two was now available. It just took me a few days to get it posted.

Building An Inside-Out Life - Part 2

How to grow your inner life in today's world

by Douglas LaBier, Ph.D.

2. Practices That Build Your Inner Life

In Part I of this post I wrote that your inner life is usually neglected, in contrast to your outer life. I gave some guidelines for identifying and reducing the gaps between your inner and outer life. That's an important step towards building psychological health and resiliency that works in today's 21st Century world of heightened interconnection and instability.

Here, I'll describe some specific steps you can take to strengthen your inner life and make it the driver of your decisions, choices, and actions within your outer life.

Think of your inner life as something you develop through practice, similar to building stronger muscles, or developing skill in a sport or play a musical instrument. Below are some inner life practices most anyone can do. The more you do, the better, because they reinforce each other.

Fill Your "Inner Reservoir"

  • Sit quietly, without distraction. Observe your breaths as you breathe slowly, in and out. Count each breath as you exhale, from one to 10; then repeat. Twenty minutes daily is ideal, but if you do only five, that's a good start

An "entry-level" meditation-breathing practice, this one builds an emotional shock absorber. It helps maintain centeredness and focus when dealing with your outer life demands and conflicts.

Some forms of meditation are rooted in Eastern and Western religious-philosophical traditions; others in current medical and scientific knowledge about effective stress-reduction. All provide a range of physical and emotional benefits that strengthen your inner life. Ongoing research supported jointly by the Dalai Lama and the U.S.-based Mind And Life Institute shows that meditation produces changes within specific regions of the brain associated with greater internal calm, resilience to stress, and focused concentration.

Amazingly, one study found that the sound of a shotgun going off near an advanced meditator's head produced virtually no change of brain activity in response to it. Want to test out how steadily you can hold your own concentration? Go to this web site.

Advanced meditators were able to hold their visual focus in this experiment for its entire duration.

Meditation heightens your consciousness and mental control. It also contributes to a stronger immune system and a more robust cardio-vascular system. It helps you awaken to what the real "drivers" are in your outer life - where you may be acting unconsciously or with illusions and rationalizations you've acquired from dealing with your outer life demands.

Counting your breaths (you could also focus on an object) not only increases your concentration, but also loosens your entanglement in the "flotsam" and "jetsam" of your outer life. This helps increase your attunement to your inner life; to your true self that lies beneath all the layers of accommodation and adaptation you're acquired through immersion in the outer world.

This practice shifts your perspective towards just observing the ebb and flow of your emotional states with less knee-jerk reactivity to them. It's like filling an inner reservoir with clarity and mindfulness that you can carry with you in each moment within your outer life.

A fringe benefit: Reducing your total number of breaths per minute to 10 or less, for 15 minutes twice per day (each inhale/exhale counting as one) has been found to lower blood pressure, according to recent research.

Grow Your Positive Emotions And Human Connection

  • Focus your consciousness on emotions of compassion, empathy, and connection towards people around you, especially those who suffer or with whom you're in conflict. Imagine those emotions occupying the main window on your computer screen. Deal with negative or indifferent emotions by visualizing them within a smaller, background window, or hidden in a file.

This practice strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and tolerance for others, especially in the face of external differences, which may dominate your field of vision.

Cultivating positive emotions cultivates your inner life and also heals something most of us suffer from in our outer world-dominated lives: "Empathy Deficit Disorder," which I've written about in a previous post. In a culture in which we define virtually every variation of human emotion and experience as a "disorder," we've overlooked one of the most harmful. It results from being so overdeveloped in your outer life that you lose touch with your own heart; with the reality of your interconnection and interdependence with other humans.

Research shows that you can practice and strengthen positive emotions with practice. People who practice this through meditation show heightened brain activity in regions linked with positive emotions like joy and humor; and with feelings of compassion towards people who suffer. They also show diminished activity in brain regions associated with negative or destructive emotions like anger, resentment, depression, or self-pity. In short, practicing certain emotional states strengthen patterns within the brain associated with them.

This means that your brain is capable of being trained and physically modified through conscious practices. As you make efforts to change your feelings and thoughts in ways that build your inner life, you reinforce brain activity in regions associated with it. In effect, you can learn to change your brain activity, which reinforces changes you make in your thoughts, attitudes, and behavior.

The upshot is that you can actually learn to "grow" compassion, tolerance, and cheerfulness. You can physically modify your brain through conscious practice. In effect, what you think and feel is what you become.

This practice for growing positive emotions also helps builds awareness of your commonality and connection with other people, through recognizing them as fellow humans who suffer and struggle as you do. You might try picking a particular situation or encounter with a stranger as a target for practicing compassion and empathy. For example, when you're dealing with the checkout person at the grocery store, try to generate positive emotions towards that person, as an experiment. Try to see that stranger as someone who shares, along with you, a desire for love; who's experienced some kind of loss or disappointment along the way; or who has hopes and dreams to fulfill. In other words, a stranger who's different from you but also like yourself, beneath those differences.

This practice is especially helpful when, say, a particular co-worker makes you want to reach for a blunt object. Or when you find yourself having malevolent fantasies about your kids the third time they start fighting with each other in the same evening.

But probably more challenging is feeling compassion and empathy towards someone you actively dislike, or with whom you've had big-time conflicts - perhaps an ex-spouse, or someone at work. Here, try seeing that person through the eyes of your inner self rather than through your outer self. The latter is where you experience your differences. Instead, imagine how and why that person might experience his world as he or she does; why that person might have the negative attitudes or feelings he shows towards you. Try to do that without judging.

Practicing compassion and empathy in these ways strengthens your inner life by attuning you to our shared human condition. It builds respect and recognition for others, even where there are conflicts. You become a more balanced, broadened and tolerant human being. Notice that when empathy and compassion are awakened, you tend to respond with a changed outlook or new action directed towards others, with less concern about your own self. Look at the spontaneous outpouring of help that usually occurs to the victims of natural disasters like earthquakes or tornado. At such times, you're letting go of your usual hyper-focus on getting and achieving things in your outer world.

Read the rest of this article.

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