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How to balance your brain (exercises)…

Having an imbalanced brain means that a person is not able to interpret the world holistically. We will either be driven purely by cold logic, or we will be slaves reacting to our emotions. The result on aggregate is that we are living in an imbalanced world where the creative, nurturing force is repressed.

There are more people with left brain imbalance than right brain imbalance most likely as a consequence of the education system.

Thought associated with the left hemisphere of the brain includes precise meanings of words, logic, maths and science, whereas creativity, improvisation, artistic and musical thought takes place in the right hemisphere.

When a person has left side imbalance their creative abilities are repressed or dormant and this person will have very little or no creative life. When a person has right side imbalance, then the person will often have blocks related to learning; for example, such a person may drop out of education. Additionally, the right side imbalanced person will have strong faith and will believe in things easily without first conducting their own research. A much smaller percentage of people initially have imbalances on both the right and left hemispheres of the brain — one example group of which is people with right brained Asperger’s Syndrome.

Brain imbalances have consequences in terms of personality. A person with a strong left brain imbalance will be a controller-type personality who is drawn to positions of power over others in which he or she may exercise authority. In contrast, a person with right brain dominance is submissive to those who have the controller-type personality. This kind of person will also be lacking in self-belief and as a consequence may generally fail to attain life goals.

This video proposes techniques for balancing the two hemispheres of the brain so that higher level, holistic thinking is made possible. In my understanding, balancing the brain and developing one’s weak side is what it means to be on a path of growth in life.

Guest Post by Nina Lalumia

At least since the time of Aristotle (the fourth century B. C.), the idea that there are four basic elements–earth, water, air and fire–has been an important theme in our culture. Aristotle himself used this idea to understand the physical world. He thought about the four elements much the same way that chemists today understand elements such as hydrogen and carbon. The basic idea is that underlying any change that we perceive there MUST be something that remains stable and the same. Physical change is understood as different mixtures, additions and subtractions of elements that do NOT change. Aristotle also understood the human body as composed of all four elements: earth because the body has solidity and we eat food that comes from the earth; water because we have blood, sweat and tears, and because we drink fluids; air because as long as we live we are constantly breathing air in and out, inhaling and exhaling; and fire because we are warm and seem to burn the food we eat.

But the four elements can also be understood in a psychological or spiritual manner. The thoughts of our mind are airy, because they can drift like a balloon to many different locations in space and both to the past and to the future. Still today we may call a person an “airhead” if their thoughts and words float all over the place like a balloon tossed about in the wind. In contrast, our body is relatively stable: it cannot travel in time (not yet, anyhow!), and it travels from place to place only gradually and with effort–certainly before the advent of modern methods of transportation. And we describe a person who is present and focused as being  “grounded.”

These symbols–air for the mind and its floating thoughts, earth for the relatively solid and stable body–are helpful for me in understanding a difficulty that I have. As a strongly empathetic person, I often feel invaded and overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of other people. I feel that I have very weak or porous boundaries. It sometimes feels like I live in a room that has no doors or windows that I can shut. I feel that I have no peace or privacy in which I might be able to give attention to my own thoughts and feelings.

I reckon that many empathetic or highly sensitive people (HSPs) have similar experiences. But I recently learned an important lesson from Caroline van Kimmenade, who produces the website thehappysensitive.com. This site offers many useful resources for understanding what it means to be a highly sensitive person, an empathetic person or an empath, and how to manage these abilities, these vulnerabilities, and live happily and productively. She also offers online coaching.

Caroline pointed out to me that in many cases I am the one who crosses boundaries into the space or territory of other people. The way I do this is by thinking: by trying to figure out what other people are thinking or feeling. My motivation for doing this is to avoid conflict: I’m always trying to please other people or at least avoid upsetting them. Then I adapt myself in order to act and be the way I think will please them.

The important realisation that I had is that, although I often feel invaded or controlled by other people, this particular phenomenon is something that I am responsible for. I don’t have to let my airy balloon thoughts float over into other people’s space or territory. I can bring my airy thoughts back down into my earthy body. Paradoxically, the best way for me to do this is to focus on my breathing. Yes, of course breathing involves air, but the activity of breathing in and out is the most noticeably constant activity of our body. In particular, normal healthy breathing involves the motion of our diaphragm, the complex muscular layer at the base of the rib cage. When we breathe in, it pushes down into a bowl shape, and we feel our belly expand. This muscular motion creates an empty space, a vacuum, in our chest cavity and draws air into the lungs. That’s the real work of breathing. Breathing out normally requires no effort: we simply relax the diaphragm, it comes back up, flattens out, and air easily flows out of the lungs.

So what I mean by “focusing on my breathing” is directing my attention to these activities of my body. When I intend to do this, for a while my airy thoughts still tend to float into different times (past and future) and different places (in particular, into other people’s spaces). But the basic technique of meditation is to notice when your thoughts float away, and gently draw them back to focus on your breathing. As far as topics go, the activity of breathing is not very interesting. This is a good thing, because eventually our thoughts settle down back into our body and rest there. For all intents and purposes, we stop thinking about anything at all. We remain aware, but are not thinking about anything in particular.

One obstacle to reaching this state of resting back into the earthy body is actually thinking about our breathing. For me, this takes the form of inner thoughts counting my breaths, giving them numbers, or an inner voice saying things like “In and out, in and out.” I think this is my mind’s way of resisting rest, of holding on to its own activity and independence. I have found a way to deal with this: I say simple words with a rocking, lullaby rhythm: Breathe deeply in and then starting on the next breath out: “La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…La, la; La, la; La, la Loo, two, three, and…” The first ‘La’ is a breath out, the second ‘la’ is a breath in, and so on for each pair of sing-song syllables.

My ten sing-song syllables play the role of what many practitioners of meditation call a “mantra.” The strategy in any case is to give the mind something fairly empty to chew on. Eventually, if all goes well, it calms down and we are simply breathing and simply aware, but not thinking about anything. The airy thought balloon has landed back in the earthy body.

After a fairly brief session of this kind of meditation, I can open my eyes and my mind again and see things more clearly. I can feel that I have needs and wants just as other people do. I grow more aware of my own feelings and can separate them from the feelings of others.

Now I am in a better position to put healthy boundaries in place: primarily by having the courage to say No to some things, and by saying Yes carefully, slowly–only after considering my current feelings and thoughts, and after considering the consequences of saying Yes. Am I truly ready and willing to accept the consequences of saying Yes–come what may? If I don’t take the time to consider such things, I am liable to say Yes only to please other people–or to do what I THINK will please them.

It is much healthier to talk with the person or people involved. Talking–real talking out loud–like breathing, is something we do with our bodies. Our vibrating vocal cords and the shaping motions of our mouth, tongue and teeth shape sound waves that set the eardrums of other people in motion, and so on.

I speak and the other listens; the other speaks and I listen. If all goes well, we can reach an agreement, a plan, a boundary that at the very least we both honestly can tolerate. It may get better than that, but we shouldn’t let it get worse.

These are things that I have learned about and am still finding difficult to put into practice. But when I do put them into practice, things go better.

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Notes on words

This sense of ‘grounded’ or ‘grounding’ arrived quite recently. The OED gives this quote from Allen Ginsberg in New Age Journal (1976): “Trungpa’s position was that ‘psychadelics’ are too trippy, whereas people need to be grounded; everything is uncertain enough as it is.” Trungpa was a teacher of Buddhist meditation.

‘Mantra’ comes from Sanskrit and was first based in Hinduism, where it meant the intention one has in mind when saying or doing something. ‘Manta’ and related Sanskrit words are the roots of our word ‘mind.’

Guest post by Nina Lalumia

A friend of mine recently said that the perfect example of an introspective introvert is the hermit who withdraws from society into solitude. I want to explain here why I think this is mistaken…

What’s a Hermit?

When I think of hermits, I think of religious or spiritual hermits: for example, a nun or a monk, or a dervish or a certain type of rabbi. In particular, I think of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who in his mature years was sometimes drawn to spend several days in a cave. It was here, when he was forty years old, that he reported that the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him to recite. What he recited at various times during the remainder of his life became the Qur’an—literally, the recitation. In Christianity, there is imagery similar to the Prophet’s cave, for example, the interior castle of St Teresa of Avila. Also, in monasteries, each person has their own private room or cell.

The personality type of a hermit

It’s safe to say that most, if not all, religious or spiritual hermits are introverts, simply because they have a strong preference for spending time alone and in silence or even darkness. They withdraw regularly, and sometimes completely, from the bustling, noisy, talkative world of society. Even if they live together in a monastery or convent, they typically limit speaking to each other only to necessary communication; they refrain from chatting, and sometimes for extended periods they take a vow of complete silence.

But I think it is mistaken to think that they are introspective—that they tend to give their attention to their own personal experience. This is symbolised by the fact that they typically have few if any personal belongings, and by the fact that they wear uniforms or habits. They divest themselves of Personality and become more or less anonymous; often they take on new names, and they typically limit, or even eliminate, contact with their family members. So to a large extent they have no personal experience to reflect on.

So what do religious or spiritual hermits reflect on?

Anyone who has tried to practise meditation knows that when you begin, perhaps by focusing on your breathing, that personal thoughts appear: typically about recent events or things that you have to do in the near future. We are naturally drawn to reflect on our past (either with regret or pleasure) and to speculate about our future (either with fear or hope). But the teachers of meditation tell us, when such personal thoughts come up, to witness them as if from a distance, and then gently re-direct our attention to our breathing or to some other fairly blank object of focus. If we are “successful,” eventually these personal thoughts settle down and perhaps disappear completely. So what is left? In a word, nothing. This is the deeper level of meditation or prayer that many hermits or mystics seek to reach. At this level, there is nothing personal left to reflect on. In this darkness one does not belong to a family, and one has no ethnicity or language or nationality. Some controversial mystics would even say that at this level they have no particular religion or set of beliefs.

What does one think about when one thinks about nothing?

The Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali explained it as follows. A person has two aspects: first, their body, which is a public object that others can examine with their five senses; and the body itself examines the rest of the world with its own five senses. But then a person also has an inner reality, the capacity to understand and reason; and this activity is not observable to any of the five senses. So also Al-Ghazali suggested that the world as a whole has two aspects: one that we can examine with our five senses—its exterior, superficial aspect, and one that we can only reach by the understanding or intellect—its inner, deep aspect.

So many mystics would agree that what they think about when they think about nothing is the inner, deep aspect of reality—the hidden basis of reality, or perhaps even the Reality itself that some call God or the Higher Power. So the religious or spiritual hermit, the mystic or person who meditates, is an outward-looking introvert—not an introspective introvert. They look outward toward the deeper reality of the world, or perhaps toward Reality itself.

The social contribution of spiritual introverts

Often, spiritual introverts spend time in solitude and then return to society with a contribution: either a spoken or written message, or their own personal example of integrity in the way that they live. Both aspects are present in the way that Susan Cain talks about her grandfather, a rabbi who loved both to study in solitude and to communicate lovingly with others; she is the author of Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. In either way, in their message or in their personal example, one of the contributions that spiritual introverts can make is to show us how to see beneath and beyond our external differences and to see the common core of humanity in us all. For example, this is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi did and that, in the Buddhist tradition, Thich Nhat Hanh does. This contribution seems especially important today, when the emphasis on external differences seems to be on the rise—often with violent consequences.

It is a painful paradox that many of the people who emphasise these differences the most call themselves “religious.” This makes me wish that they would return to the traditions of meditation, prayer or mysticism that the different religions share—each in their own way, but with a common core at the heart…in the human heart, at its introverted best.