Here we are: humans on planet Earth. That alone is a miracle when you consider the odds. Scientists estimate there are roughly 8.7 million species on our planet, many of them far more populous than we are. Moreover, we find ourselves on just one of what are thought to be billions of Earth-like planets in the universe. Yet here we are: people—not bacteria, not blades of grass. We have advanced brains that can do miraculous things; we have opposable thumbs, we can make fire. We can accomplish nearly anything with the tools we’ve been given. In short, we’ve hit the jackpot.
We may not always feel lucky, of course. Life has a way of challenging us, and the ways we perceive and respond to those normal, natural challenges can define the quality of our lives. Suppose for a moment that we set aside judgment and simply accept life’s many experiences—wondrous and horrendous alike—as opportunities for learning, with resources often miraculously provided if we look for them. What if our purpose as human beings was to experience all we could experience and to gain insight from each thing? Shifting our outlook in this way can be transformative, and the key to appreciating this miracle—the human life.
Brain, Meet Your Brain
We know we have a brain and we know what it does…it thinks. But it’s not quite that simple. The human brain has three parts, two of which are non-verbal, meaning thoughts cannot be formed there. But all three play key roles in how we experience the world.
• The reptilian brain is the oldest part from an evolutionary perspective, which makes sense since it’s charged with ensuring the survival of the species. This part of our brain scans for danger, and if it thinks it sees some, it sounds the alarm—generally by seizing control of our body, as in the famous “fight or flight” response.
• The mammalian brain is something we share with most other mammals. This part of our brain drives us to seek safety and security by joining the herd, so to speak. In modern, human terms, it drives us to form social bonds and to seek the approval of others.
• Finally, we have the primate brain. This is where language lives, and where, therefore, we create thoughts, ideas and narratives in our mind. It’s responsible for all great inventions. But it can also invent what feels like a real experience out of something illusory. It is responsible, in short, for our subjective interpretation of our lives.
Brain, Meet Your Body
Back in the 1600s, an idea known as Cartesian Dualism gained popular currency. In essence, the theory treats the body as little more than a life-support system for the brain—processing food for energy, getting rid of waste and handling other mundane housekeeping needed to allow the brain to do its incredible work.
In fact, however, the body is an amazingly complex machine that actually has more ability to process stimuli than the brain does. Consider that the sensory organs of the body receive 11 million bits of information a second, while the brain can process only about 60 bits.
Above all, know this: the body will do everything in its power to keep itself alive. Input from the body’s neural system and the reptilian brain determine what tasks the body will prioritize and how it will function—not any conscious input from us. Our brain might think it can trick the body into doing its bidding, but not only can the mind not control the body, the body will counteract every harebrained idea the human mind devises.
Still, your body is more than willing to work with you. All it demands is an understanding of its rules and some respect. If you give it enough sleep, nutrition and exercise, it will repair almost any problem you have.
The Nature of Things
Until recent times, the human animal lived in very close contact with other animals and with nature. Our survival depended on it. Obviously, we still depend on things in the natural world to survive. We fuel our bodies with things living and growing on the earth. The sun provides us with what we need to create Vitamin D, vital for calcium absorption. In the Eastern traditions, it’s believed that the sun energizes our chi, or life force.
While we no longer have to be out in nature hunting and gathering our food, our bodies yearn for that experience. And spending time with animals can be tremendously instructive. Some share only the reptilian part of our brain. By observing them, we are reminded of the amazing machinery at work in our bodies, and how it will do everything in its power to keep us alive.Our mammalian friends, meanwhile, exhibit herd or pack behavior, just as we instinctively do, and can reflect that part of us back like a mirror.Moreover, animals have an enviable ability to read non-verbal communication.After all, their lives depend on it.
Time spent in nature or in communion with animals can help shed insight on most areas of human existence.
You Are Here—Mindfulness
In any sort of navigation, the first order of business is to determine our present position. How can we plot a course from here to there without knowing where “here” is? In our day-to-day lives, however,we tend to focus on where we think we want to be at the expense of an understanding of where we’re starting.
“Mindfulness” can be a tricky word—suggestive, perhaps, of tenets too “out there” for some. In truth, mindfulness is a simple and logical concept that should satisfy even the most linear thinkers: It’s nothing other than tuning into the messages our minds and bodies send us.
You may not realize it, but people form some 60,000 thoughts a day. Typically about 80% of them are negative. A developed sense of mindfulness enables us to sort those thoughts that should be heeded from those that should be ignored. Similarly, our bodies provide us constant, valuable feedback on our current state, most of which goes untapped.
Mindfulness, then, is just learning how to read what our minds and bodies are telling us at any given moment, so that we can be sure where we are before we start off for where we want to be.
Thoughts and What They Can Do to You
The brain is a busy organ—receiving much more information than it can fully process. So, quite naturally, it looks for shortcuts. What this means is that familiar questions, analyses or tasks that the brain feels it has already fully processed are dispensed with by rote. 1+1? That’s 2. Water too cold? Reach for the tap.
This is known as Level 1 thinking, and it’s helpful in some cases, but a hindrance in others. Suppose, as a child, you asked to join a group on the playground, but you were rejected and ridiculed. Your brain used the more intensive Level 2 thinking and processed this with the resources you had at the time, perhaps deciding you were a loser and shouldn’t try to join groups. Today, you see a group of people having a good time without you and your brain automatically spits back “You’re a loser—stay away.”
When our Level 1 processing causes suffering, it’s like a relentless mental whip. Negative thoughts literally become habits and may ruin an otherwise perfectly good life. But if new neural pathways can replace the old Level 1 thinking, and they cause less pain, we experience a life filled with more ease—and that’s a wonderful thing.
You, The Expert on You
The internet affords us access to previously unthinkable quantities of information. There are experts telling us what to eat, what to drink, how to dress, how to exercise, how to date, how to raise our children, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Of course, some expert advice contradicts other expert advice. Is it any wonder we get confused?
Here’s a little secret:There’s only one expert who actually matters—you.Due to biodiversity, there is no one else exactly like you and therefore you’re the only one who knows what’s right for you.Sure, books, information, and other forms of outside perspective (such as life coaching) are valuable, but only if you trust and rely upon your own internal feedback as you assess, adapt and implement the ideas you’re exposed to.
Most of us are familiar with that slightly sick feeling we get when we’re doing something that’s not right for us, or the euphoric feeling that comes over us when life, for whatever reason, feels effortless.
As a coach, my aim is to help you become more aware of your own unique stop and go signals, help you learn to trust them, and eventually to become an expert at tapping into them so you will know, and know quickly, whether you are moving in the right direction.