It turns out that the way we respond to a stimulus in the outer world determines what neural pathways will be activated in the brain.
If we respond to the stimulus with any sort of negativity – which on the physical level feels like tensing up, constricting, freezing, tightening, pushing away, shortening of breath, clinging, clutching, seizing, etc.) – we activate the so-called sympathetic nervous system.
In this case, our lizard brain (the oldest part of the brain that controls the fight and flight mechanism) gets a signal to start pumping stress hormones into our bloodstream and we feel this high-adrenaline fight-and-flight response.
However, if we respond with the inner gesture of release, letting go, and relaxing this inner resistance, we activate our prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain, which brings on a powerful parasympathetic response.
The parasympathetic effect of meditation is the result of the mental gesture of letting go.
It feels like opening up, inner softening, gentle yielding, accepting, consenting, allowing, embracing.
In other words, as soon as we stop resisting whatever we don’t like about the present moment and start welcoming it, our sympathetic nervous system shuts off and the parasympathetic turns on.
As a result, we switch from “fight and flight” to “rest and digest.”
Here’s how it happens in the so-called Centering Prayer – my favorite form of meditation.
I wasn’t planning to write a review on Amazon’s The Rings of Power, but my son asked me a question I couldn’t ignore.
And thus there awoke in the world the Two Trees of Valinor. Of all things which Yavanna made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven.
As we finished watching the first episode of The Rings of Power last night, my son asked me after a pause:
“What do you think?”
“Don’t know yet,” I answered, “not too bad, I suppose, but I hoped there would be much more Tolkien in it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, “there’s Galadriel, Elrond, Sauron, hobbits. What else?”
“Hm…” I scratched my head, “I guess to have more Tolkien there you need to start the tale how he started the tale.”
“Do you mean with the creation of Arda?” he pressed.
“No, with Music. The Music. The world of Tolkien began in Music.”
“So, how would you have started the series?” he finally asked.
“Let me think,” I said, and there was silence in the room for about half an hour broken only by the chirping of a cricket outside.
And silence was over all the world in that hour, nor was there any other sound save the chanting of Yavanna.
Finally, I broke the silence.
“All the tales of Elder Days are woven around the fate of the Two Trees. Do you have any idea why?”
He shook his head.
“Imagine Galadriel and her brother Finrod sitting by a murmuring brook at twilight. He asks her: ‘Do you know how Elves came about?’
The camera zooms in, and we see the following scenes unfold in Galadriel’s big blue eyes as she listens to Finrod’s tale.
‘By the starlit mere of Cuivienen, Water of Awakening, the Elves rose from the sleep of Iluvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuivienen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentari above all the Valar.’
Galadriel sees in her mind’s eye the mere of Cuivienen and then looks up and suddenly sees Varda walking among the heavenly hosts.
‘Who is it?’ she asks her brother in amazement.
‘Varda, the spouse of Manwe, the chief of the Valar.’
Can you just talk it into quieting down without making it into your enemy?
It turns out, the art of humility – thinking of yourself less – cannot be achieved through willpower. But it comes naturally when we are smitten by Wonder.
The Greek word for “beauty” — kalos — has the same root as the verb “to call” — kaleo. Beauty calls. Kalos kaleo. The true function of Beauty is to call – to call us out of ourselves by the magnetic pull of Wonder.
As I stood by the quaint jewel of the Sierra Nevada, Echo Lake, I was smitten by its turquoise-to-azure waters set against the backdrop of gorgeous snow-topped mountains with their granite arms outstretched far and wide around the Desolation Wilderness in the most exquisite embrace.
I felt dwarfed, quieted, struck dumb, and ecstatic all at the same time.
I couldn’t think about myself at that moment – and I didn’t need to.
I forgot myself entirely – I was one with the Whole.
I was diminished but not belittled. And I felt great.
All the irritation, impatience, frustration, anxiety, and perfectionism were gone. I was pulled out of myself, soaking in the ecstasy of the moment.
The Greek word for “ecstasy” (ekstasis) literally means “to stand outside of or transcend oneself.”
Like any true myth, the story about Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side is compelling in its overwhelming persuasiveness. What led Anakin to the dark side?
C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter to Peter Milward that a good myth is
“a story out of which varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages.”
And then he added that a myth is not really dependent on the words in which it is told or the art form in which it is conveyed. It’s not the narrative itself that makes the myth convincing but something much more elusive.
“The narrative is more of a net whereby we catch something else.”
What led Anakin to the dark side?
What I caught in the net of the Star Wars myth is HOW Anakin was led to the dark side — it happened, oddly enough, through his inordinate desire for something good.
As a young boy he swore a solemn oath at his mother’s grave: “When I grow up, I will become strong and will never let my loved ones suffer and die.”
This oath marked his transition to the dark side long before it happened in chronological time. At that moment, a bargain was struck in his soul for the possession of a loved one in exchange for breaking God’s law.
At that moment, he made a decision for himself to never ever part with his loved ones again, no matter the cost. The perfectly good desire — to protect his loved ones from death — turned in him into a demonic possession when he put it on a pedestal.
An idol is usually a good thing that we make ultimate. We say, “Unless I have that, I am nothing.”
Why did Anakin choke Padme?
When Anakin had to choose between losing Padme — fearing that she might die in childbirth — or turning to evil to “save” her from death, he chose evil. It was his desire to “save” her at all costs that led Anakin to the dark side. For him, the dark side became a means of saving his loved one. He chose evil to achieve what he thought was the ultimate good.
Ironically, this led to Padme’s death. He choke the one he wanted to save with his own hands. When we turn a good thing into the ultimate thing and try to get it at all costs, we lose that good thing — destroy it with our own hands.
Such is the harsh logic of idolatry. We are captivated by some version of good and turn it into the “summum bonum” — without noticing it. And then everything becomes a means to an end, a sacrifice offered on the altar of this god.
A wise man once said that a myth is something everyone knows without being told. This “story” lives in humanity’s collective unconscious, and we all instantly recognize it once it is put in the form of a narrative.
Whether it’s alcohol or social media, if you have battled with addiction for any number of years, you know that it’s not enough to just stop. Stopping is relatively easy. The hard part is not to start again.
Bill Wilson, a co-founder of AA, saw thousands of people quit drinking after “working the 12-step program.” But he noticed over time that many of them eventually replaced their old addiction with a new one.
Why do we keep relapsing?
“How often have some of us begun to drink in this nonchalant way, and after the third or fourth, pounded on the bar and said to ourselves, “For God’s sake, how did I ever get started again?’”
AA’s Big Book, page 24.
Why do we keep relapsing? According to Bill Wilson, an addict will remain an addict as long as they believe in their power.
We go back to our self-destructive behavior because we believe that through it we can control things.
For example, I fall into passive aggression and start pouting every time I feel offended because I believe that this will induce the other person to meet my needs.
The reason I fall into workaholism again and again is that I believe that through overperforming I can control how much I get in life. I reach out for this next piece of chocolate against my better judgment because I believe I can control my mood from outside in.
Getting empathy from someone who will not judge you.
A simple 10-minute practice that undercuts the root of anxiety is surprisingly counterintuitive
After struggling with anxiety for about 30 years, I finally found something that works. As of today, I have not been anxious for over two years, which is surprising, given the circumstances I have been through.
My first anxiety attack came at 21 when I was a senior in college. It came totally out of the blue — it must have been triggered by a train of thought that I totally didn’t notice. And it felt so bad, I had to excuse myself and go out to breathe it away.
Since then I would get it every once in a while — always hitting out of the blue. Trying to “figure it out” never helped. In fact, it made it worse. I couldn’t trace it down to any external cause.
Of course, I did a bunch of things to get rid of it — talked to therapists, worked out, memorized Bible verses, and read tons of books on self-help, philosophy, and religion. It helped… sort of…until the next time.
For some people, life is boring when all goes well.
Most stress is self-inflicted. That is, we can avoid it if we choose to. But we choose not to. The reason is that our bodies “need” it. Often people don’t reduce stress because they use it as compensation for nutritional deficiencies.
According to Dr. James L. Wilson, a leading specialist in nutritional balancing science, people who are constantly tired often use stress as a stimulant. Over time, they become addicted to stress and instinctively choose things, people, and situations where they can relive the level of stress they are used to.
Is stress a stimulant?
It sounds strange, but it is a well-established fact that people who grew up in abusive homes use stress as a stimulant. Eventually, they end up recreating the same degree of abuse in their adult relationships as they saw in their childhood.
They find partners who stress them out. They find jobs where they carry the brunt of the workload for pennies. They find friends who “need” them. They find people they can rescue.
They are ready to sacrifice themselves on every altar and feel bored when life goes well. Life should be tumultuous to be interesting. They need drama to feel good.
Does self-inflicted stress deplete your body of nutrients?
When the body experiences daily stress for an extended period of time, it loses some of the essential nutrients and minerals (like zinc, for example) that get flushed out almost immediately through urine when we get stressed.
When the body is deficient in essential nutrients, its energy level decreases. In time, we develop cravings for things that can get us going despite fatigue — coffee, energy drinks, sugar, and stress.
Putting some stress on the body temporarily boosts adrenal hormones — primarily cortisol. Cortisol raises blood sugar, which, in turn, gives us some energy. We feel we can keep going.
I was looking at the lampshade that I was designing as part of my business. I liked the way it turned out. And yet, something made me doubt whether it was ready to go to the client. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.
Was it the shape? The size?
Straining my mind for an answer, I suddenly felt some unease growing in me. I knew very well what it meant. It usually means that I am frustrated with how things are going and want quick results.
Chuang Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, told a parable of an archer who “needed to win.” At first, he was shooting just for fun and seldom missed.
When he was offered a reward, a brass buckle, he became nervous. Then, he was offered a prize of gold and went blind – started seeing two targets.
His skill didn’t change, but the prize divided him. He cared more about winning than shooting. The need to win drained him of power.
I also knew what my mind was doing. It was set on winning. On results. Not on the fun of designing. My unease made me blind – I couldn’t see what was lacking in the lampshade.
I stopped and took a breath. I needed a break. “The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” the famous quote crossed my mind.
It felt counterintuitive – I had a deadline to meet. The project was due the next day. Just thinking about it gave me more anxiety. I was desperately grasping for control.
Sitting down in a chair by the window, I turned away from the lampshade. Do I really need to get it done today? What if I let it go and stay inactive for a while? The thought sent shivers down my spine. I could lose the client if I didn’t ship it on time.
But there was something else behind it all that I feared even more. Deep down in my heart, there was a little perfectionist who couldn’t bear the thought of not meeting someone’s expectations.
It was my self-image, my EGO, I was holding on to. It was my ego that made me so uneasy. I knew I needed to let go. I will stop striving for results and will trust my creative instincts.
Taking the leap of faith, I finished the last of my coffee and stepped out for a bike ride.
For the rest of the day, I was watching my mind intently – it would shoot back to the lampshade again and again. But, after some time of silence, it slowly loosened its grip.
I sat by the window, watching the kids play with a plastic bag that they inflated like a balloon. My wife was busy in the kitchen making pancakes – the Russian style! And then, finally, my mind was empty. For a while, I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular.
Noticing the smells, the rustling of the plastic bag, the laughter of the boys, I was becoming increasingly aware of what was going on around me. And there was peace, undisturbed by any thinking.
The next morning, I walked into the room and looked at the lampshade. And suddenly – bang! I got it. It struck me like lightning. It was a simple solution that only an empty mind could produce.