Take another road home

Life thrives on chaos, but we want order and dulling routine. We prefer the safety of habit to the unpredictability of the new and unexpected.

Our ancestors adapted or died. It wasn’t a corporate slogan. The brain evolved to handle the challenges and complexity that the environment posed.

All the senses were needed all the time; there was no mundane or routine.

There is a theory that we use the right hemisphere of our brain to learn and then the left side takes over.

Unfortunately, our society is left-brain dominant and doesn’t pay much attention to the right hemisphere. While our ancestors lived with all the senses saturated, from the right side, we constrict life so it dribbles instead of flows.

Since we don’t have to run from a sabre-toothed tiger or chase a gazelle, we exercise for health. Walking up a flight of stairs without breathing heavily, or being able to tie our shoes without sitting down improves the quality of life.

Just as aerobics is good for the body, neurobics is good for the brain, especially the aging brain. A few mental pushups, sit-ups and jumping jacks keep the grey matter wrinkled and elastic and the white matter as shiny as though it were scrubbed with Ajax.

“Neurobics requires you to do two simple things you may have neglected in your lifestyle,” Lawrence C. Katz, a former professor of neurobiology, writes in Keep Your Brain Alive.

“Experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all your senses in the course of the day.”

We’re uncomfortable with change. We dress the same way, have the same thing for breakfast, drive the same way to work, line up at the same coffee shop, eat at the same restaurant and return home exactly the same way.

Numbing routine acts like a sleeping pill on the brain, which is why we can drive home and have no idea where we spent the last 25 minutes. The body was in the car, but the mind was elsewhere.

Unfortunately, if we’re not careful, it isn’t the drive home we miss, but life itself.

When we repeat the same predictable, routine and thoughtless actions, habits and behaviour, our brains stagnate. We stay in the same groove, the same lifelong rut.

We used to believe we couldn’t change, that the adult brain was set. But we don’t have that excuse any more because science has shown our brain is plastic.

We can mould, shape, sculpt it by doing things differently, learning and having new experiences, just as we did when we were young. The brain does not have to fossilize with age.

Up for a game? After work, before getting into the car, let’s close our eyes, toss the keys around a few times, find the right one, unlock the door, feel around for the ignition and start the motor.

Drive home by a different route, but with eyes open, watching and hearing everything — with the car radio and the cellphone off. When we get home, do the same thing with our house keys. Walk around the home with eyes closes – and see it again for the first time.

When we can’t see, we use touch, smell, hearing and spatial memory to find our way around out house — and around the furniture, the dog and the cat. Different actions create new and different patterns of neuronal activity in the brain.

“If you would know the truth, close your eyes and walk in the dark,” St. John of the Cross wrote a few hundred years ago.

Michael Merzenich isn’t a saint, although as one of the leading researcher on brain plasticity, he has almost god-like status in the science world. The professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco notes that neurons form a network only when we pay attention to the stimulus.

“In response to the right stimuli, neural connections can be rewired and refined, the brain’s gray matter can thicken, and new neurons can be produced.

“In general, the brain needs to learn, to reason, to act. Without it, it deteriorates. I assume that we brain scientists understand this with increasing clarity, and whatever else the information explosion contributes to humankind, we'll understand, with increasing clarity, what the average individual has to do to maintain lifelong brain fitness.”

That means if we don’t use it, we lose it. The dendrites, branches at the end of the nerve cells that receive and process information, atrophy, retarding the brain’s ability to create new memories and find old ones.

Learning is forming new neuronal relationship and remembering is keeping the relationship alive.

By not living by rote, but doing things differently, we force the brain to use more neurons to learn new things. If we brush our teeth with our left hand, put a different leg than usual into our pants first and button our shirt from the bottom instead of the top — with eyes closed — it forces us to pay attention.

Even taking a cold shower brings us shivering into the present instead of day dreaming or worrying about how the day will unfold.

“When we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing, the brain activates a host of other synaptic networks, and we don’t learn,” wrote Anders Ericsson, psychology professor at Florida State University, and an expert on expertise.

“With the exception of the influence of height and body size in some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body has been shown to constrain an individual from reaching an expert level.”

If we pay attention and practise, we can become what we daydream about. The road to greatness starts with taking a different route home.


And there was light

In the beginning, there was light. On that point, religion and science agree.

There is, however, a slight disagreement over when and how the light was turned on. In the 17th century, protestant bishop James Ussher, by counting the begats, came to the conclusion that the world was created on Sunday, Oct. 23, 4004, BC.

(He also calculated that Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise on Monday, Nov. 10. Maybe that's why so many people dislike Mondays.)

Scientists are a little less precise. Research suggests the primeval atom exploded 13.8 billion years ago. But it didn't explode in the usual sense. When it went poof, it created space and time, and as a result, every person, no matter where they are, is the centre of the universe.

John Wheeler, a quantum physicist and colleague of Albert Einstein, also suggests, that this is a participatory universe; at the most basic level, we, along with said universe, create our reality.

We choose — consciously or otherwise — what we want, or don't want, and what we concentrate on manifests in our life.

What we think with repetition and emotion becomes our reality, no matter whether it's negative or positive, whether it's life enhancing or life restricting. We choose.

We come from this world like an apple from an apple tree. The tree's essence is in the apple, which contains the seeds to make more trees. So, too, do we contain the essence of the universe and propagate it.

We are one of the methods by which the universe creates more of itself.

If we accept that down to our DNA, the light dawns; our belief system creates the light of our understanding, or misunderstanding. Just as the power that flows into our homes is useless if we don't flip the light switch, so we stay in the darkness until we choose to light up.

When the universe was in its infancy, 380,000 or so years after that infinitesimally small something went bang, light was imprisoned by matter. Then, presto, in what is called the surface of last scattering, the free electrons, blockers of the light, were captured in atoms and photons flew free.

As above, so below. . . . We were born into light, went dark and now it is time to create our own surface of last scattering and, like the early universe, unshackle the photons from matter and allow our light to shine.

We shield our light, even from ourselves, but should heed the biblical injunction not to hide it under a bushel — or anything else.

There is even a theory that says if we could see rightly, we would see everyone as bodies of light, maybe as luminous beings as Don Juan saw people in the Carlos Castaneda books.

Biophoton theory suggests our bodies are made of light, but our senses are not fast enough to see it, like a movie, which is still pictures moving fast enough to appear as a continuous stream.

"Biophoton light is stored in the cells of the organism — more precisely, in the DNA molecules of their nuclei — and a dynamic web of light constantly released and absorbed by the DNA may connect cell organelles, cells, tissues, and organs within the body and serve as the organism's main communication network and as the principal regulating instance for all life processes," Marco Bischof writes in Biophotons: The Light In Our Cell.

That might stretch the fabric of belief until we remember that Einstein showed energy and matter are two versions of the same thing, and energy is a form of light.

Everything — our senses, our world, our friends, our family — tells us we are solid matter, but beneath the atoms holding hands to create us, there is a river of energy, a river of light.

A river runs through us.

Heraclitus said that we can't step into the same river twice, to which some wit added we can't step into the same river once. From the time our foot touches the top of the water until it settles firmly onto the bottom, volumes of water have rushed on. It is simply not the same river.

That is true of the river of us. We look in the mirror, bounce off a wall, feel the flesh and the bones beneath and think we are what the mirror reflects; that we are an older, bigger version of the child that came into this world X number of years ago.

There is little of the us of two years ago that still exists, other than memories. We look the same; have the same car, same clothes, same house, same spouse, same kids. Many have exactly the same thoughts, but the things that make up this us has been replaced and recycled.

All rivers run to the sea and rivers of light flow into the cosmic ocean; eventually the network holding the transient atoms into the web of us, will disintegrate.

We can, however, take some solace in the fact that the energy making us will be around as long as the universe — another trillion years or so. And maybe that will be recycled into a new universe.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a great healer in the 19th century and teacher of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, called the visible world “the shadow of wisdom's amusements,” that nature is only the outward projection of an inward activity far more real and enduring.

If we, as Quimby suggested, wipe clean the windows of our perception, we would see beyond this fiction of self and realize we are more than this bag of bones, this collection of memories, virtues and vices and that if we do not identify with what happens to mind and body, we will experience freedom.

If we get out of our own way and let the light shine, let what we already are manifest, if we stop fighting life and let it flow through us, it will wash away all that we are not — what we think we are -— and allow that which we already are to shine through.

“I will not wish thee riches, nor the glow of greatness, but that wherever thou go some weary heart shall gladden at thy smile, or shadowed life know sunshine for a while. And so thy path shall be a track of light, like angels' footsteps passing through the night.” — Words on a Church Wall in Upwaltham England.

You get what you give

The Me Generation never quite grasped that the ultimate purpose of life is to be of service to others.

We were too busy looking out for No. 1. Our mantra was: what’s in it for me. That philosophy proved to be a short cut to a wasteland that prompted many to pray for something more, something more that a new house, a new car, a new TV, a new relationship.

We forgot the old truth that the more we give, the more we get. We can’t give billions like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, or use fame like Bono or Oprah Winfrey, but we can give ourselves.

Jesus said the widow who donated two mites to the temple gave more than the rich because it was all she had.

When society “evolved” into more complexity, we lost our simple sense of connection, of belonging to a bigger whole. People used to belong to the community. They operated on the principle of the greater good, up to the point that, in some societies, the old wandered off to die when they could no longer contribute.

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can,” said George Bernard Shaw. “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.”

Motivational guru Wayne Dyer used to spend hours in mediation before a lecture repeating one phrase: “How may I serve?”

At some point, whether it is after one drink too many, seeing our kids leave home, or during some personal catastrophe, we ask, again, why we’re here.

The answer is different for all of us, but we know it isn’t to see who gets the fastest car, has the biggest bank account or goes on the most exotic vacation. He who has the most toys doesn’t win.

The answer will inevitably be about service and making the world a better place.

We find we don’t want to emulate the sport hero who signed a multi-million deal or the celluloid celebrity who checked into rehab, again. We want to be more like the people who influenced us; people who move the world forward and help raise the consciousness of the planet.

We want to be like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Mahatma Gandhi….

While we lack their stature and spiritual development, we can change the world on a smaller scale, one act of service at a time. It could be shovelling the driveway for a neighbour, helping someone get her car out of a ditch, or going door to door for the cancer society or heart and stroke.

We’re too old to be boy scouts and girl guides, but we can still practise their philosophy.

We can become committed community volunteers, the oil that makes society run. “Hands that help are holier than lips that pray,” said Sathya Sai Baba.

One act of kindness can change someone’s life and start a butterfly effect that improves the world. A guaranteed way to lift ourselves out of any foul mood or depression is to help another.

During biblical times, Roman law required a Jew to carry a soldier’s belonging for one mile; Jesus took it one step further and suggested that when something is demanded of us, we go the extra mile, to give more than is asked.

No human law requires us to help others, or to go the first mile, but the law of attraction gives back what we put out. When we say yes to the universe, it echoes back that refrain.

“He is great who confers the most benefits," Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in On Compensation. “He is base —and that is the one base thing in the universe — to receive favours and render none.”

Giving and being of service helps us grow toward what Karlfried Graf Durckheim, a German psychotherapist and spiritual master, called being transparent to transcendence, aligning ourselves with the flow of life.

It doesn’t end by giving — whether it’s a loonie to a panhandler or $1,000 to the food bank — but it’s a good place to start.

“You will gain far more than you give,” said D. Hamilton Simon-Jones, director of Community Service at Tulane University. “You will be taught about courage, perseverance, culture and strength. You will be taught about power, politics and society.

"You will be taught about yourself — your limits, your faith, your outlook, your needs, and if you are fortunate, you will be taught about where your passions lie, you will think about who you are and why you live the way you do.”

Leo Tolstoy died before Simon-Jones was born, but he proved the validity of that statement. Tolstoy had more than most of us even fantasize about. He was rich, he was famous and was regarded as the greatest novelist of his time. He had such an influence on Gandhi that he chose non-violence as the way to free India from the English.

But even with everything, Tolstoy plunged into a mid-life crisis that lasted years — which he chronicled in A Confession — and contemplated suicide just about every day. He finally found solace by converting to a life of spirituality and rendering service to others.

“The vocation of every man and woman is to serve other people,” he wrote.

If we go into the silence and ask ourselves what our purpose is, the answer is more likely a reminder that we are all connected and that by helping others, we help humanity evolve.

Norman MacEwan, Royal Air Force vice marshal, put service into a poetic perspective. “Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”


All around you beauty

Our soul is calling us to the barricades to launch a revolution, an inner revolution.

Revolutions change the world. Twelve thousand years ago, the Agricultural Revolution overthrew the nomadic way of life and allowed civilization to prosper; 150 years ago, the Industrial Revolution overthrew the agricultural and civilization changed directions again.

There have been a host of others, of course: The Renaissance, the Reformation…. The revolution of physics seems obscure and abstruse even now, but just about everything in modern life flows from quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity: TVs, computers, the remote control.

The Sexual Revolution also changed the world, and without it there might never have been Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives on TV, but fortunately the remote helps there.

Although our inner revolution isn’t an armed struggle, we can take heart from one slogan: workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. Unlike the Russian serfs, we aren’t enslaved by the czar, the nobility and the custom of centuries.

Our chains are the thought patterns that enslave us in our own misery. Either we don’t see it or we love it too much to change.

In the book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman recounts an experiment on dogs that were penned in an enclosure with an electrified floor.

No matter how much they howled, prowled and scratched at the walls, they couldn’t get out and they eventually accepted their lot. Later, even when could get out, they didn’t; they sat in the security of their pain.

There is also the story of a young man who could have been in a Tums commercial. He grew up with spicy food and as a result, always had heartburn. He joined the army and soon the bland food allowed his body to heal.

When the heartburn stopped, he ran to the infirmary. “Doc! Doc!” he yelled. “My fire has gone out.”

We become resigned, like the dogs, to our misery or, like the soldier, learn to love it.

We talk about our ill health, getting old, our lousy job and even worse boss, about our children who won’t leave home, and if they do, they never call. The pain is the common bond we have with everyone, whether a friend or someone we meet at ICBC or the dentist’s office.

We talk about the weather, about the snow in late April, which provides a nice segue into a conversation about our arthritis. Before you know it, 45 minutes have zipped by and it’s our turn in the dental chair or to have our picture taken for a new licence, which means we’re five years older, and more fuel for our next conversation.

“The birds they sing at the start of the day
Start again I heard them say
don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.”

— Leonard Cohen, Anthem.

What would we be like if we hummed along with the primal song Life sings to the butterfly and the buttercup, to everything, even to us: grow, be all you can be?

What would we be like if we stopped playing songs that are the spiritual equivalent of she-done-me-wrong? Would that help us remember we are Life incarnate? Just as a quantum particle is a product of its field, we are a product of the field of all possibilities. The field has many names, but the name is irrelevant.

“You are the mirror in which God recognizes itself,” says a Sufi proverb.

Even after our inner revolution, growth means struggle: the butterfly, the chick, the cicada are born of their own efforts. While the metaphor isn’t seamless, it applies to the birth of a human baby. The mother must, no matter how much support and coaching she has, breathe and push on her own.

In our re-genesis, we give birth to ourselves. We are our own parents; we choose how we will grow, who we will become.

“To put it simply, be who you are. Encourage others to be who they are. Be authentic, responsible, and empowered. Empower others to be authentic and responsible.” Paul Ferrini writes in The Ecstatic Moment.

“Don’t lead. Don’t blame. Go alone when you have to. Go hand in hand when others want to join you. Either way, be an equal. See your inherent equality with all beings. That way your gifts will be offered in a way that helps others and you will receive the gifts of others in a way that helps you.”

Oddly enough, no matter how much time we spend fighting for our misery, it’s a fight most are destined to lose. Two University of Chicago studies suggest older people are happier than younger ones — except for baby boomers who are the least happy.

“Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages,” said sociologist Yang Yang, author of one of the studies.

His study found that the odds are happiness improves by five per cent every 10 years.

But in a counter-intuitive sort of way, everything is perfect, because life is the way it is. We might not see it, we might not appreciate it, we might not like it, but when we accept it, life flows and we recognize the perfection.

In an old movie, actor Burgess Meredith, who later played Rocky’s trainer, said something was a miracle, to which his companion said there are no such things as miracles.

“I know,” Meredith’s character replied with his twisted smile. “That’s what so miraculous.”

It, as always, comes down to a choice — about life and every-day miracles. We can choose to see the grandeur in a sunset and a traffic jam, or we can choose to ignore the first and complain about the second. But one will still be beautiful and we will still be in the traffic jam.

Nothing changes except our perception. And that changes everything.

We can get past the regrets about yesterday and ignore the fears about tomorrow and live right now, since it’s all we have.

We can choose to remember this Navajo prayer:

“Beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty in front of me, beauty behind me, all around me beauty.” 

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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