This year eat, sleep, move your body, meditate, sing, love and if you can do it in community even better.
According to Kenneth Blum et al (2015) “Finding happiness may not only reside in our genome [genetic material or genes] but may indeed be impacted by positive meditative practices, positive psychology, spiritual acceptance, love of others and self, and taking inventory of ourselves-one day at a time.”
Will the new year be happier for you?
Do you have a meditative practice that also involves movements, like Qigong, Taichi, breathing exercises, yoga, chanting, running, etc.
Do you seek to bring new awareness to your psychological state and how you feel?
Do you practice love of self and others?
In the 2015 article entitled, "The Molecular Neurobiology of Twelve Steps Program & Fellowship: Connecting the Dots for Recovery," in the Journal of Reward Deficit Syndrome 1(1): 46-64, Blum and his colleagues outline each step of the Twelve Step Recovery Program in terms of what is happening in the brain and how dopamine (pleasure and anti-stress brain chemical) is involved.
The researchers note, "A breakdown of this Brain Reward Cascade will lead to the dysregulation and dysfunction of dopamine homeostasis [balance]. Dopamine has been established as the pleasure and antistress molecule. Any reduction in dopamine function can result in a deficiency in reward that leads to substance seeking behavior [addictions]."
While the article focuses on people with significant addictions who are trying to recovery, there are some lessons for all of us in how we seek community and how we look for rewards and support in our lives.
First, let's consider these questions:
How can we use the sensations we experience in the world and our beliefs about our surroundings to feel better and help our communities function better?
How can we bring more awareness to our lives and see the path forward more clearly?
This is really at the core of the neurotheology or the spiritual neuroscience of brain health and dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or a small molecule that is produced in the brain and helps nerve signals travel from one place to another. It also helps us feel good, feel rewarded, and move comfortably.
In a simplistic way, Parkinson's disease, with its tremors, tight muscles, chronic back pain can be described as not enough dopamine, as is also true of some people with significant addictions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, schizophrenia with it hallucinations and breaks with reality can be described as too much dopamine.
Brain Cross Talk and Well Being
The researchers continued, "There is evidence that through the 12-step program and fellowship cross-talk [communication] between the Pre-Frontal Cortex-Cingulate (site of decision-making) and the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) (site of craving behavior) is developed.
The site of the brain where one experiences feelings of well-being is called the Mesolimbic System and has been termed the reward center. The reward center is where chemical messages, including dopamine (DA), serotonin, enkephalins, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), work together, to provide a net release of dopamine in the Nucleus Accumbens. "
"Dopamine, as stated earlier, has been associated with pleasure and is the primary neurotransmitter modulating the activation of the reward system of the brain. It has been called the anti-stress molecule and the pleasure molecule. When dopamine is released receptors are stimulated and feelings of well-being and stress reduction increase."
Food, Sex, & Exploration
"Drugs of abuse are considered to be stronger positive reinforcers than natural reinforcers (like food and sex). Natural rewards include satisfaction of physiological drives (like hunger and reproduction and exploratory locomotion), and unnatural rewards are learned and involve satisfaction of acquired drives. Acquired drives involve hedonic sensations and pleasure derived from alcohol, other drugs, as well as, from gambling and other risk-taking behaviors."
When an individual is trying to make up for not enough dopamine they may use drugs and other non-natural rewards. Think about your practices around food and sex. Do you feel like you have a healthy relationship to both? Are you stimulating the brain reward centers naturally?
Is Chocolate the Answer?
Certainly chocolate and salty grease foods can be satisfying for a short period of time but when was the last time you ate delicious healthy food prepared with love that brought you pleasure and a deep sense of satisfaction?
Move Your Body
"Exploratory locomotion" is the third natural reward. How often do you move as you explore your environment? Many of us drive cars and are moving in space as we see new sights but our bodies are not moving. This research implies that we have a physiological drive to move our bodies and explore new things in our environment. And that our brain rewards this "exploratory locomotion" with a better balance of dopamine and a strong sense of satisfaction.
Other research indicates that consciously long walking or taking long steps can also enhance the balance of dopamine in the body. One of the symptoms of Parkinson's disease (too little dopamine) is the development of a shuffling gait or walking with short steps. One way to counteract this and improve walking, balance, and muscle relaxation is to consciously take long steps.
"The reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse such as cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, food, and music are mediated in the NAc, a site within the ventral striatum. Indeed, it is believed that this structure directs motivated behaviors, elicited by natural rewards or incentive stimuli."
In what ways do you involve music in your life? Do you sing to or listen to music in a community setting? Does performing or listening to music bring you pleasure and satisfaction?
"Other work by Davidson’s group on mindfulness reveals the importance of mediation in terms of brain activation of the reward circuitry. Understanding this could suggest that meditation coupled with enhance spiritual belief may indeed induce dopamine release" and a happier new year.
Are you part of a religious or spiritual community? Do you feel connected and understood by your neighbors? Do you feel like we are all part of the community of humanity?
There are some religious communities that are trying to convert people from other religious communities to their way of seeing the world and interacting with the powers that be in the universe. But more and more today, interfaith communities are springing up, perhaps in response to hate speech or bigotry and sometimes in an effort to be proactive and create peace.
Communities that are trying to convert people to their religious beliefs and interfaith communities are very different and have a very different impact of world peace.
Spokane, Washington has a very active interfaith community. Each month or so, the Spokane Interfaith Council creates an event called Meet The Neighbors. This month we met at the Islamic Center of Spokane. The purpose is education, an opportunity to see the inside of another religion's sacred space, and talk with people—one person to another. At events such as Meet The Neighbors it is easy to see that we all have a lot in common, we want our children to be safe from harm, we want to learn and grow in the world, have a warm home, and meaningful work and lives. After listening to the Muslim call to pray, members of the Muslim community share what is most beautiful about their religion. "That moment in pray when I connect deeply with my creator," said one man.
Several people in the audience quietly nodded in agreement. Past Meet The Neighbors events have taken place in Sikh temples, Jewish synagogues, Bahia (Muslim) centers. Next month we will visit a Native American center.
In early February there will be another event in Spokane designed to encourage dialogue and learning. As part of the Being Religious Interreligiously Lecture Series and in honor of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate (an encyclical from the Pope) at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, Dr. Amy Jill-Levine will be speaking on "Of Pearls and Prodigals: Hearing Jesus' Parables through Jewish Ears."
In an earlier interview with David Neff, Levine said, "In working with Christian congregations and clergy groups, I find an enormous interest in Jesus' Jewish context—how the parables would have sounded in Jewish ears and what the controversy stories suggest about early Jewish practice. I think that if Christians want to take the Incarnation seriously, they should also take seriously where and when and to whom it occurred. Hence the volume has 30 short essays on such topics as the Pharisees, the temple, the ancient synagogue, Jewish parables, Jewish miracle workers, Jewish beliefs in angels and the afterlife, Jewish family life, and so on. "The Jewish Annotated New Testament" also serves to correct unfortunate stereotypes of early Judaism that sometimes find their way into Christian preaching and teaching. It also addresses anti-Jewish teachings such as that all Jews are "Christ killers" or lovers of money or children of the Devil. The annotations provide historical contexts for the passages that give rise to such canards as well as note that the vast majority of Christians read their Bible as a text of love, not hate."
I also recently attended an Interfaith Havdalah presentation. Franciscan friar, Al Mascia and Steve Klaper, a cantor or Jewish musical leader ask Christians to come early to Catholic Vespers and Jews to stay after their Havdalah (Saturday night ending of the Jewish shabbat). "The Interfaith Havdalah is not a mixture of faith traditions; rather we are unique communities praying in each other's company," said long time friends and colleagues, Al and Steve.
As part of the Jewish Havdalah, Steve Klaper leads Mincha (afternoon prayers) and Maariv (evening prayers) with songs like Shalom (Peace) Aleichem (peace be upon you) and V'hi No'am which is taken from the 90th Psalm, noted Klaper, saying the Psalms are something both traditions have in common.
Making the transition from Jewish Havdalah to Catholic Vespers, the leaders ring a Tibetan bowl and encourage participants to take a deep cleansing breath. The candle in front of Friar Al is then lit and they sing "Upon the Lighting of the Lamp at Vespers". Other songs that are part of the Vespers service include "Rejoice, Rejoice" and "Shalom My Friends." Noting the inclusion of the song "Upon Giving Thanks for Incense," Brother Al explained that both the Jewish Havdalah and the Catholic Vespers has an olfactory or smell component.
As they close the service, Brother Al says, "Shavua Tov" wishing Steve a "good week" and Steve responds by wishing Al, "Shabbat Shalom" or a peaceful Sabbath.
"We light candles as an external expression of prayer, said Brother Al ending the event with a quote from the Sufi / Muslim poet, Rumi, "A candle doesn't lose its light by enlightening another candle."
The 13th century Persian poet also said, “Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing there is a field. I'll meet you there." And sometimes it is enough just to pray beside each other because as Rumi said, "When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.”
Why do we do things? What motivates you? Do rewards or punishments motive you, truly? If we want peace and success in this world for all communities and for all people, what do we have to do?
Recent world events have shown how people try to motive others. The problem with many of these carrots and sticks is that they have not been thought through. As long as rewards and punishments are used to motivate people, we will live in a world build on fear and scarcity.
When a terrorist plants a bomb and kills innocent people, what do they hope to accomplish? Will France be motivated to give them land, money, and jobs? Will the United States? I think one of the saddest things in this world is when people destroy other people in an attempt to get what will make them happy. It is literally never successful.
What do you want? Do you think about how you are trying to get it?
Marshall B. Rosenberg developer of "Non-Violent Communication" shares that there is enough for every one of the seven billion people on this planet as long as we don't have to have a specific piece of food, land, and person. There is enough love for each of us as long as we aren't set on that love coming from someone who doesn't love us. There is enough land as long as we are not set on a particular unattainable piece of land.
The movie, "Avatar" featured all the stress and trauma that went into mining for a particular mineral, which the movie producers adeptly named, "Unattainium." There was enough for everyone as long as force and destruction was not used to get energy, housing, and love.
I ask myself what is my "Unattainium?" How can I share more?
The Mormon (LDS) church recently changed their guidelines to bishops and other leaders of congregations to include this wording in revisions to the LDS Handbook, http://www.scribd.com/doc/288685756/Changes-to-LDS-Handbook-1-Document-2-Revised-11-3-15-28003-29 "A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing."
And I wonder how is the LDS church trying to bring people to God or make the world a better place with this kind of mandate. What do they want? Do they want to shame or coerce gay men and lesbians into leaving their relationships so that their children will have a chance at a particular piece of heaven? Do they want to punish children and withhold blessings as a way of manipulating the people and world around them? Are they trying to send a message to their membership that anyone who doesn't do what they think is right will be punished and love will be withheld?
If they are trying to motivate people, I think they will have about as much success as the terrorists in France, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.
Dan Pink, in an article entitled, "Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us," from www.thersa.org said, "the science shows that we care about mastery very, very deeply, and the science shows that we want to be self-directed. And I think that the big takeaway here is that if we start treating people like people and not assuming that they're simply horses, you know, slower, smaller, better smelling horses, if we get past this kind of ideology of carrots [rewards] and sticks [punishment] and look at the science I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off, but I also think they have the promise to make our world just a little bit better."
Further explaining, Pink puts motivation into an economic model but many of the same principles hold true for any organization, "Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money and they're thinking about the work. Now once you do that, it turns out there are three factors that the science shows lead to the better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is our desire to be self directed, to direct our own lives. Now in many ways traditional notions of management run afoul of that. Management is great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction is better."
In your organization, whether it is a church, a business, or a country, do you want compliance or engagement?
Pink continues, "Mastery is our urge to get better at stuff; we like to get better at stuff. This is why people play musical instruments on the weekend. You have all these people who are acting in ways that seem irrational economically; they play musical instruments on weekends -why? It's not going to get them a mate, it's not going to make them any money why are they doing it? Because it's fun, because you get better at it and that's satisfying."
Bombing people or condemning then for not agreeing with you does not motivate them to get better at what you want or pay attention to what you want.
"What you see more and more is a rise of what you might call the purpose motive as if more and more organizations want to have some kind of a transcendent purpose: partly because it makes coming to work better; partly that's because that's the way to get better talent. And what we're seeing now is in some ways, when the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive bad things happen. Bad things ethically sometimes but also bad things like not good stuff, like crappy products, like lame services, like uninspiring places to work that when the profit motive is paramount, or when it becomes completely unhitched from the purpose motive, it just... people don't do great things," explains Pink.
What is the purpose of your community? Is your community growing in engagement and talent? Are you and those around you doing great things?
Kimberly Burnham, PhD (Integrative Medicine)
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