“Be careful what you wish for; you may get it.”
If it makes sense to you that what you think, what you feel, how you experience yourself and the world around you all grows out of the habits developed in your brain, then you begin to recognize that changing those habits doesn’t just have minor effects in your life. Accustomed to the symptom-based western medicine approach to health, trainees often arrive wishing to improve their memory, their attention, to stop having migraines or panic attacks. It takes time for them to realize that those are simply visible symptoms of an out-of-balance way of living and that the only way to change them permanently is to change the ground from which they grow.
Early in my training career I struggled with a certain type of client. As they began to change in response to training, they complained. An executive told me after about a dozen sessions that he felt “stupid and foggy”. At first I assumed I was doing something wrong, and I spent a lot of time checking my placements and protocols to see what it was.
As we discussed further, I realized that he was so accustomed to his mind always racing, trying to work on 5 projects at once, that he experienced stillness and calm as negative. It took a while for him eventually to realize that he was getting more done, producing less stress for himself and those around him and generally living a better life. He got used to there being less “noise”, but it took him a while to disconnect from the “excitement” of all that stress. More than a few clients stopped training when they began to get what they thought they wanted.
Most of us have experienced our inner (and outer lives) for many years as they have “always been”. We can’t imagine that there is another way of being and feeling—and especially that there is a way which works better. The fact that our thinking, conscious, ego-mind likes pretending it’s in charge complicates things further. To shift to patterns that don’t waste energy, create anxiety and stress, that produce focused results and improve our lives, we have to get accustomed to the mind only working when it’s needed.
The Peak brain
The brain by weight is only about 3% of the human body, but it uses more than 25% of all the oxygen we breathe and more than 50% of the glucose in our blood. The brain is always working. The more efficiently it operates—the less it wastes energy—the better the body (and you) function.
When researchers look at the energy brains of people who are able to do things the rest of us cannot, what they find most clearly is the ability of those brains to idle when they haven’t a particular task to perform. Like a car, these brains have the ability to shift into a “resting-ready” state.
We expect our cars to sit quietly at a stop light prepared to move forward as soon as it changes. The car that races its engine doesn’t go as far on a tank of gas, and it burns out its parts much sooner. At the same time, if you turn off the engine at a red light, it takes longer to get moving again on green. We expect it to rest—but to be ready to respond.
How Does That Look in the Brain
The human brain has a thin cortex (bark) overlaying it—about ¼ inch thick. That layer is the “thinking” brain—our ego. When it is working on a task, its neurons activate in specific areas (depending on the task), firing between 13-21 times each second. This brain speed (frequency) is called beta, and it is produced only in the cortex and ideally only at task.
Beneath this “thinking” brain, the cortex, are a whole set of other structures. We share some of them with mammals. Others we share with more primitive reptile brains. These sub-cortical parts of the brain are the sources of our emotions, memories, intuitions, creative impulses. Sometimes the mind controls them; often it’s the other way round.
These sub-cortical structures broadcast specific frequencies throughout the brain, and when cortical neurons are not working, ideally they resonate with one of these rhythms. The frequency called alpha—especially when it is found synchronized throughout the cortex—correlates with the resting-ready state. When the brain is producing synchronous alpha, we experience the state called “being in the zone”.
In the next few sections we’ll look at how the ability to operate in and maintain this resting-ready state—as opposed to racing our motors—translates into a new way of experiencing ourselves and the world around us.