Shock, Horror, Black Lives Matter, Integration

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stopsign2It’s July 8, 2016. Two more innocent black men killed by the police, one in my home state of Minnesota and one in Louisiana. And then a number of police killed at a protest in Dallas. I don’t have enough words. I don’t have enough tears. I don’t have enough ways of saying Oh My God. And I certainly don’t have enough understanding, compassion or outrage, because sometimes, there simply isn’t enough.

And What The Fuck??!!?? doesn’t seem to cover it either.

So what is an amateur neuroscientist to do other than make a heartfelt plea for integration?

I’m going to step aside this awfulness for a moment and talk about my mom, because I had an insight the other day that is helping me understand things. She was a difficult person to be around a good percentage of the time. Sharp tempered, cutting, angry and scary. And she could also be funny and extraordinarily kind. Sometimes she was pissed at me for no reason and alternately, the most loving and supportive person imaginable. Really.

And so I grew up walking on the proverbial eggshells because it was hard to know which mom was going to show up, and it was better to err on the side of anticipating the angry mom. Thus I either did my best to stay out of her way or tried to make her happy or at least less angry. These are classic strategies in dealing with an unpredictable person.

So here’s the insight that came to me recently. My mom was fine—great even—when her prefrontal cortex (aka PFC) was, as we say “online.” The PFC is the last part of the brain to develop, both evolutionarily and as we grow up. It is also often called the seat of executive function, and controls such things as empathy, long-term planning, good decision-making, delaying gratification and so on. In other words, it is pretty damn critical for clear, rational thinking and decision-making.

The problem is, stress can seriously knock the PFC for a loop. Stress floods this part of our brain with too many catecholamines (such as norepinephrine and dopamine), which, while critical for PFC functioning, also need to be in proper balance for this, our highest brain, to work reliably.

In other words, when we’re overloaded by stress, forget thinking straight. We may think we’re making the right decision, but as anyone who has every sent a short sharp email in response to being triggered can tell you, often we’re not. And there is hell to pay.

Now in the business world, or even in families, the impact is often a slower toxicity. I had a lot of stuff to work through about my mom, but hey, I’m here, I’m alive, I’m able to work on it. Philando Castile is not. The impact for him and Alton Sterling and countless others of running into a person who did NOT have control over their fear and lost connection to their higher brain was death. This shit matters.

We all lose it from time to time. The PFC gets flooded and the lower brain (starring the amygdala of amygdala hijack fame) takes over. And at these times we often say hurtful things, make bad decisions, shut down or lash out. It happens. But with practice and awareness, we can work to create more integration between our amygdala (whose repertoire is pretty much limited to fight, flight and freeze) and our higher brain. In other words, begin to observe our own reactions and take steps to bring ourselves back “online” to our higher brains. Calm our reactive asses down. take a beat, take a breath, stop.

Now look, I know cops have real fears to face, especially as things keep spiraling more and more out of control and many communities experience ever-increasing polarization. I know it seems like they often have only a split second to make a critical decision. I’m not saying this is easy, and no one, especially an amateur neuroscientist like me, has THE answer. But man oh man, something has to shift. And maybe one thing we can do is help everyone learn how to fucking manage their reactive brains just a little bit better.

Because honestly, the higher brain in most people (sociopaths etc. excepted) really isn’t an asshole, but the lower brain often is. Fear, baby, it’ll kill ya.

Deepest respect to everyone, no exceptions, with love (and profanity) from Ann.

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Gurus, Housework and the Dalai Lama

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love_guruRecently one of my (male) FB acquaintances asked “where are all the female gurus in the self-help movement?” and I responded by saying, “Guruism is so last year.” Because truly, I believe it is. Now I don’t want to make this a male-female issue (I know plenty of women who follow gurus and plenty of men who don’t) but I do want to link it to the Dalai Lama’s famous quote: “The world will be saved by the Western woman” and say more about why I think the whole concept is over and done.

It has to do with evolution. There was a time when we as humanity needed a shining positive example of what it is possible to be and become. Having the energy encapsulated in one being who could be pointed to, listened to, and emulated was a highly effective way to transmit higher consciousness, given where we were at the time in our own awareness. We were too lost, too reactive, too untrustworthy to understand what to do and how to do it by ourselves. So the great avatars came and lived among us as examples and teachers.

And many (mostly men) left their daily cares and followed, in hopes that some of this goodness would rub off on them. They devoted their lives to prayer and meditation, to listening at the guru’s feet. They left families and communities to live with him and bring his words to the masses, or simply to feel more of his spirit themselves.

(Meanwhile the women–mostly–raised the children, cooked the food, and made the communities run. But more on that later.)

This model, so critical and important in ancient times, has outlived its usefulness. As humanity, we have indeed learned how to be enlightened away from the demands of home, family, commerce. We have seen that it is possible to be the spiritual beings we long to be when we are on retreat, in meditation, up on the mountain. And we have had so many examples of goodness walk among us that we must know in our very cores that it is possible. Hard, perhaps, but possible.

So now what? Now what is what the Buddha said with his dying breath: “Be a light unto yourself.” The next phase of enlightenment says 1) trust what is within and stop looking outside, and 2) do it here, and do it now.

I’m not sure this is at all what the Dalai Lama meant when he said that thing about the the world being saved by the western woman, but it’s where my mind keeps going. Most women I know don’t have time to spend months and months in retreat. Someone has to, in the famous words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.”

And so the question becomes for all of us, men and women living fully in the world, who do I want to be while I am making lunch, taking the dog to the vet, negotiating a deal? We can’t afford to separate ourselves from daily life in order to have peace and be kind — what is the ultimate value in that? The world needs us here, on, with as much love as we can muster in the midst of the chaos.

And while it’s fine to have examples and inspiration, it’s time to take the pedestals down and take more responsibility ourselves for our own wisdom and knowing. The problem with the pedestal is that it takes our energy to support it, and frankly, in my opinion, that energy can be much better used. The next wave of human evolution is crying out for our full involvement with each other as peers, as collaborators, as co-conspirators in love.

We’re ready. We can do it with one hand on the dog leash and another on the stroller, looking forward and at each other, not up at some distant god, human or otherwise.

Rock on.

No Pathway

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flower-camomile-summer-field-grass-blue-sky-nature

imagine you
had never failed
at love

imagine you knew
nothing
nothing
about relationships
and could step in
to this one
like territory
unexplored

imagine all the pathways
petering out
tracks fading
in the grass
until you stand
amazed
in the largest field
you’ve ever seen

imagine you
don’t know
where to go
what to try
or even
what to think

and imagine your skin
brushing the dew
of the very first day

imagine walking forward
to meet
someone
in this place
of no prediction
and no plan
no disappointments
no excuses
no patterns
and no idea whatsoever
what happens
next

imagine there is
nothing here
but the freshness
of beginning

and
begin

~Ann Betz, August 2013

Happily Ever After

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My friend Mai Vu just gave me this sign and I immediately hung it outside my house because — well, because it was perfect. It’s not the sort of thing you would generally think to give a single person, but then, Mai isn’t the sort of person who does anything in the usual way. (That’sIMG_20130703_175305 why we’re friends.) And when I unwrapped it, I found myself thinking “Wow, that is exactly how I feel about my life.” Happily ever after.

Like many of us, I believed the Cinderella dream. Find the perfect prince, settle down, get all the stuff (including one or two kids) and there you have it: Happily Ever After. You know this one, I’m sure you do. Insert whatever dream you were told you were “supposed” to have — the right job, house, clothes, car, etc. Get it, and you’ll be rewarded with your Happily Ever After.

But we all know that’s a Big Fat Lie. A relationship isn’t a ticket to lifelong happiness. Neither is money, prestige, or a bunch of cool stuff. Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve learned that happily ever after is a process, not a goal. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you look at it. 

For me, happily ever after has developed in the course of learning about and loving myself. This meant I needed to leave what looked like a perfect marriage, and with it, my life in tropical paradise (we lived on 50 acres of ocean-view land in a lovely part of Costa Rica) in order to be authentic and true to myself. It’s also meant turning down safe and secure job offers for the unstable adventure of self-employment. Sometimes it’s also meant moving on from friendships that are no longer resonant and joyful. I guess happily ever after might sound a bit selfish. It’s not. I also know my happily ever after means a life of service and connection. Just not in a way that diminishes my life force. 

But the main thing about happily ever after is that it is an always thing. I get an unexpected new client? Happily ever after. The dishwasher breaks? Happily ever after. Whatever happens, happily ever after. That’s why I put it by the front door of my house. To remind me happily ever after is a choice and a stand. You’re married? Wonderful, I wish you happily ever after. You’re divorced? I wish you the same. No matter what life has in store, happily ever after.

Every Promise is a Promise to Myself

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I’ve been having an – ahem – dalliance with a lovely man. Smart, funny, successful, interesting and cute as all get-out. But (yes, there is indeed a but), he just can’t seem to manage his schedule so that we can get together as planned. Something often gets in the way, mostly work. And yes, there are always profuse pinky_promiseapologies and promises, and statements that “this isn’t normal.” But his batting average for being able to make an agreed upon date and time is about .300 to .500. And while that’s great in baseball, it sucks in a relationship. Whether or not he wants to admit it to himself, it is his “normal.” As they say, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, honey, it’s a duck.

Now, I know some of you suspicious minds out there are thinking, “Hmm, is it really work? Maybe she’s just being played…..” And although I do know he’s not married or anything like that, you still could be right. What I’ve come to see is that it doesn’t actually matter whether he can’t get out from under his workload or is simply full of shit. He’s not showing up. And it’s not just that he’s not showing up for me, risking my annoyance and eventual defection, the truth is, he’s not showing up for himself.

Here’s how I hold it. My word, my promise, is ultimately to myself. It can involve others, from promising to do something in a business relationship to meeting a friend for a cup of coffee, but at the bottom of it all there is me and how I choose to show up in the world. I am the one I have to face in the mirror at the end of the day. And the person I know I want to face is someone who keeps her word.

Now I know we are treading close by the valley of shame, and I want to pull back from that edge, because for me it isn’t about being ashamed of myself for not honoring a promise. Shame is a terrible motivator with a huge toxic impact on the body and I am not interested in anyone going there, especially myself. No, this conversation lives in a different place in me. It lives in love.

I didn’t always love myself. Like many of us, I have had my struggles over the years with disappointment and being convinced I didn’t measure up. From losing my hair at age 17 to never having the right and perfect body to not having more letters after my name, I know the place of feeling profoundly not-good-enough. As much as anything, my personal journey has been a journey of loving myself.

How have I done this? With tremendous intention and determination. With a huge amount of practice and by a zero-tolerance policy for people in my life who don’t think I am the cat’s pajamas. By practicing saying “I love you” to myself even when I didn’t feel it. By finding things to approve of about my body rather than criticize. By really making an effort to take in the nice things people said about me rather than brushing them off. By telling myself I am doing the best I can. And by keeping my word.

I don’t know many awake and aware people who would say that they don’t value integrity and honesty. It’s core to who we are, a shared value at a certain state of consciousness. When I keep my word to others or myself (and yes, the latter is often more difficult), I honor this part of me, and of us. I can look in the mirror and know I showed up as I said I would. I can stand straighter knowing I am trustworthy.

So for me, every promise is a promise to myself, a promise of the kind of person I want to know myself to be.

Every promise is a promise to myself.

The Blessing of Food Allergies

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If you’ve ever hung out with me, you know I am one of those annoying high maintenance people who has to have food just her way. I’ll order a chicken Caesar salad no croutons, no parmesan, oil and vinegar dressing. “So, umm, basically you want chicken and lettuce, right?” say the servers. This is because I have had food allergies for years. No grains, no dairy, no sugar, no soy, no additives of any kind, and increasingly (big sigh) no wine. Ah well.

chocolate cakeEvery so often I meet someone who knows they have the cure for me, or who says if I just go see this or that healer it will be fixed. I chased this for years, spending a lot of money and time in the process. And I was so frustrated and irritated. Even gluten-free pizza with nut cheese (yee-haw) doesn’t work for me, much less a big gooey piece of yummy chocolate cake. Poor Ann. It’s so unfair.

Then one day it hit me like a bolt from the blue. Everything I am “allergic” to is actually terrible for most people’s bodies and brains. Take wheat, for example, my biggest sensitivity. According to Dr. David Williams, who wrote the popular new book Wheat Belly, grains have been modified to the point that most of us can’t really process them. The original grain was fine for humans, but the new amazing “dwarf wheat” that was developed to feed a hungry world? Toxic.

And those who know nutrition were nodding their heads as they read my list above, saying “of course.” These are all known culprits. Perhaps not originally, but in today’s food supply, not generally very good for us. I won’t go into all the reasons here, but I will share that all of these foods create an inflammation reaction in me. My whole body becomes puffy, as if it is trying to fight off an infection or invader. This, in turn, has a profoundly negative impact on my mood. I used to think this was just because I looked bloated and my pants got tight. Then I found some interesting evidence that pointed to a bio-chemical and emotional response to the inflammation. Inflammation brings you down emotionally.

Here goes the connection. If you have people write down a memory of a time they were ashamed and you test their saliva, you find an uptick in inflammatory chemicals that does not occur when the same people write about a neutral or positive event. Conversely, if you inject inflammatory chemicals into lab rats, normal, happy, well-adjusted rats socially isolate themselves.[1]

Studies also show that mice given powerful doses of pro-biotics (acidopholus) to balance their gut flora were more committed to saving themselves from drowning than a control group (no mice were actually harmed in these experiments—the researchers fished them out before they actually drowned). We know that the gut holds the largest concentration of neural receptors for serotonin, the chemical we need to feel happy and positive. Eating a healthy diet (and taking probiotics) helps keep things in balance and positively impacts our mood.

When I learned these things (and much more), I started to see my food allergies in a new light. Maybe it wasn’t a place I was a victim, but a place I was profoundly blessed. You see, I can’t eat stuff that isn’t beneficial to my body, brain and mood. It’s not a choice for me. My body makes sure my reactions are so severe that it simply isn’t worth it. So people say “Oh, you have such willpower” when I turn down a nice warm chocolate-chip cookie, but willpower has nothing to do with it. My body and I are partners, and it very nicely provides a continual disincentive for eating all the stuff that truly, would do me no good.

So when people tell me they can “heal” me, my perspective is very different. I consider myself healed. I wouldn’t actually want my body to be any other way than the way it is. My diet is clean, organic, and keeps me functioning with tremendous energy and robust health. My mood is positive, and my brain is functioning better than it ever has.

I am blessed.


[1] Dr. Mario Martinez, Biocognition, http://www.biocognitive.com