“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
~ W. B. Yeats
What do you tell yourself that is making you sick? Have you ever observed the power of suggestion? Our minds are programed to respond to the information it receives, whether the information is factual or based on a story you make up. I was listening to my favorite NPR show (‘On Being’) and was fascinated by the work of the scientist Ellen Langer. Many years ago she performed a social experiment which demonstrated something fascinating (and weight related). She took a group of chambermaids who worked in New York, and the experiment group lost weight and had better control of their diabetes merely by seeing their work as exercise. As they went through their normal routine, they consciously saw everything they did, the vacuuming, the lifting, the bending, the cleaning, as exercise. When they did this they lost weight. The control group who did the same work but looked at it as work, did not.
When you change your point of view, you change the information you give your brain, and your body responds differently. She had done an earlier experiment on aging. She took a group of men in their 80’s to a retreat in a hotel that was retrofitted to look as if it was from an era 20 years before. The outfits, the TV shows, the newspapers and magazines, the music and the technology were all from the earlier era. At the end of the retreat, not only did the men all look younger (even to people who were not aware of the study), their physical checkups were all improved. By believing that they had traveled back in time 20 years, their bodies responded by acting 20 years younger!
Ms. Langer also pointed out that the term ‘Mind-Body connection’ doesn’t really capture the reality: our minds and bodies are not separated. We are one united organism. Cells in our bodies respond instantly to messages sent out from our brain to cells, muscles, tissues, glands. As soon as we perceive something we see as a threat, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in jacking up our heart rate and blood pressure. Cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) pours into our bloodstream elevating our blood sugar which over the long term results in all kinds of damage and metabolic changes in our bodies.
And all because of the way we view things. Not because of the threat itself, but because of the way we interpret and perceive our everyday life. How many times have you lain awake thinking about future events. I know my mind gets very busy at night when I am supposed to be sleeping. They call it the monkey mind. Thoughts that chatter and leap about inside your brain, jumping about from one thought branch to another; swinging upside down with the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘and thens’. And half the time the ‘what ifs’ either don’t happen, or everything turns out fine. And you wasted those sleepless nights feeding those monkeys.
We waste a lot of time anticipating (in a bad way) future events. Instead of planning appropriately and allowing events to unfold, we dread, we fear, we have anxiety and all for what? I usually start to have dreams in April about our annual dinner dance that we have at the end of August. And these dreams are never good. For some reason I haven’t had one this year yet, or if I have I don’t remember! So perhaps I am doing better.
Deliberately changing your perception of things, people and situations can change the way you react to them. This results in less stress, less apprehension, less damage. But how do you accomplish this? Ms. Langer (who has written a book called Mindfulness) suggests that you start by being aware of how you see things, and then trying to see them in a different way, looking at the flip side. If there is a person who makes you crazy because of they are rigid and unable to be flexible, see them as stable and balanced. If there is an upcoming situation that you have to be on your best, see it as a game or a challenge! When you see that test, that interview, as a contest or something to win, you are setting off a different chain of responses in your body.
In the same way as Langer sees the ‘mind-body’ as one, she suggests that we should not strive for balance between work and play but rather should look for opportunities to make our work playful. When you see your tasks as games, when you inject laughter into situations your day goes by much faster and your body will demonstrate the improvement in your health. Don’t you have a co-worker who always makes you smile? Why can’t you be that co-worker?
So this morning I challenge you (and myself) to be more mindful as you go through your day. Are there situations that you could tell your mind a different story, see it in a different light in order to produce a different response? Science has already proved how much harm we can do to ourselves by stressing over things that haven’t even happened yet. The numbers of people with hypertension, heart disease, obesity, cancer are staggering. Many of these diseases are preventable by lifestyle changes. But human cells have amazing powers of regeneration and healing that we never tap into, because we have bought into the belief that there is medicine for all that ails us. But just suppose, just suppose that you could start to tell yourself different stories, what could the possibilities be?
It’s all in the way you look at things. This week a photo taken at dawn by a friend who is committed to improving her health with a daily ten-mile walk reminded me of a hymn we used to sing: ‘New every morning is the love’. One of the verses says:
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.
Change your mind, change your lens, change how you observe things and see how it makes a difference in your sense of health and wellbeing. And be sure to let me know if it works for you!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!