Back To School – The Second Time Round

I have been back to study for 2 weeks now, and this time back feels a lot different to when I first arrived to the University of Wollongong as an 18 year old.

In an introductory course of psychology, so far I’ve learned about sports and exercise psychology. Sport psychology may include things like; performance, mental stamina, leadership, flow states, stress management, coaching, team cohesion and even grief, in the case of career transitions – all athletes will experience these transitions at some point.

Exercise psychology differs, as it involves the psychology behind; exercise, motivation, mental health benefits of exercise and mental health issues as a result of a lack of exercise.

My second subject is all around statistics and research. Statistics can be found anywhere from the amount of likes you get for a Facebook post to the NRL scoreboard on your tv screen.

This subject is all about gathering data and then learning how to organise it, measure it with things like; averages or medians – does ‘median wage’ sound familiar to you? These are the tools we use to find patterns in the numbers, so we can measure them, gather information from them and use them to make predictions about things.

One thing I thoroughly enjoy doing is learning something new and then applying that new knowledge to a real life context.

I have been tracking many things from my; resting heart rate, heart rates during times of high activity, sleep cycles, steps walked, calories burned, BMI, body weight, muscle mass, water mass, body fat, mood and on occasions my heart rate variability (HRV).

I have spent months collecting this data, not knowing what the hell to do with it.

I’ve flooded myself with all of these statistics, now it’s time to learn how to do something practical with them.

Being able to apply the concepts learned in this course to some of the statistics on myself has been a fun endeavour, thus far. It’s probably going to make me want to track way more than what I do already. I’ve considered making a personal investment into brain tracking devices, but I think I will leave those ones for a later date. For now, I like to focus on tracking my moods as a priority. I am finding the data from that really useful and I love the process of making entries, multiple times a day.

I get a huge enjoyment out of collecting data on myself. We are the most sophisticated organism on the planet. Our abilities to not only see things but to also control them is uncanny, and so I want to learn more about this impressive biological mechanism we call the “human being”.

The Process Of Learning How To Learn

In a course titled, ‘Learning how to learn’ – by professor Barbara Oakley, we learn some of the best approaches one can take during the process of learning something new.

Gone are the days of those “12 hour study benders”, none of which I actually did. They were more like, 6 hours of cramming and the other 6 just fucking around – either mindlessly scrolling through material or just straight day dreaming about unrelated things, like the stresses in my life or what alcoholic or non alcoholic drink I wanted for that night (coffee was a big one in the non alcoholic department).

The whole concept of cramming is ineffective and impractical, in many ways.

You expend unnecessary energy in the process of cramming and this is because of the two modes, both requiring your attention.

You want to be able to go into focused modes of thinking, in the case of first seeing something like a fact, concept or procedure.

In order to understand the new thing that you are learning, your mind will focus you onto that thing, but it requires concentration because it’s a new skill.

Think back to your first drive in a car. Your mind was not working the same way as it does today. You had to think every step through with focus, concentration and perhaps a bit of anxiety. The mind was rigid in that state.

It’s not until you step away from that focused mode of thinking into a more relaxed and open mode of thinking – the diffuse mode, where your mind can dig a little deeper and make connections with things you have learned in the past.

Another important thing that is emphasised in this course is the technique of spaced repetition. When you first learn something, put it away and come back to it in a few days and review it, then put it away and come back a few days after that, and repeat.

You are continuously coming back to the same thing, but you increase the time intervals between each review. That way, everything is always being refreshed, even if it’s just lightly. By the time you finish, you won’t have to cram a damn thing. You would have provided enough time for your brain to go into both focused modes and the diffused modes, where it can relax and dig deeper into your psyche in order to make new and improved connections.

🧱 Learning new things is like laying bricks. You can lay some, but it’s best to walk away and let the mortar dry properly before you return to lay more.

One thing I have found the most interesting so far is the pomodoro technique – 25 minutes of focused mode thinking, and take a break for a few minutes, and repeat.

If we use the brain as a muscle analogy, this reminds me of weights training, or even HIIT (high intensity interval training). You do your reps, then rest – repeat. During the time of your reps, you are expending energy, contracting and stretching your muscles. This is the way you build those muscles – tear and repair.

With this technique, you are far less likely to suffer from the fatigue that would come after trying to go for an hour or two of straight study. You sustain your energy over a longer period, and you put in your reps.

This is the same principle that can be applied to learning – this pomodoro technique of 25 minute intervals of focused learning. Consider them as short sprint training sessions for the mind.

My Problem With Buddhism

I’m a massive proponent of diversification – spread yourself thin and explore the many options available to you.

This may be why I’ve had a little trouble with Buddhism, in recent times.

I’ve spent the last 5 years studying Buddhism, and studying the mind respectively – which Buddhism claims not to be a religion but a study of the mind.

However, through my own personal experiences have come some of my own philosophical questions about life and I feel as though I may have come to a road block in respect to Buddhism.

To say that the philosophy of Buddhism, along with its esoteric practices like mindfulness meditation have aided me in many facets of life would be a major understatement. It inspired me to go down many paths, both spiritual and scientific.

However, remaining firm to one philosophy or one practice goes against my value for diversity and this is starting to reveal itself in my world.

I have two issues with Buddhism, and I am trying to work out whether it’s a flaw in its system, or a flaw in my own thinking – perhaps, many misinterpretations as a result of my naivety.

The number one pillar of Buddhism states that – life is suffering.

I’ve struggled with this lately, as I feel like it’s a huge blanket statement. It’s not that I disagree with the statement, it’s that I think it’s overly generalised in many senses.

To say that life is suffering is to rule out any other possibility or description of life. While there is a lot of suffering, there is also an equal amount of progress being made in the world.

If I make a reference to the Chinese proverb of the vinegar tasters – Lao Tzu, Confucius and the Buddha are all tasting vinegar from a pot. Their reactions to the vinegar is a representation of the respective philosophy.

In the story, the Buddha tastes the vinegar and reacts as if the vinegar is bitter or sour – as if to say life is bitter and there is suffering everywhere due to our desires.

Lao Tzu seems to be the only one of the bunch to taste the vinegar and react as if it’s sweet, implying that life is perfect in its natural state.

Again, this general blanket statement that “life is suffering” is not something that I necessarily contest with, however I think it has the potential to cast a bitter view on the world.

When the Buddha went on his journey of enlightenment, he was sitting under a tree when he came to the realisation that all suffering occurs due to our desires.

When you think about that sense of dissatisfaction we all feel, and that longing for things to be different to the way they are, you can see how some of our desires can lead to mental and emotional suffering. When you desire for things to be different to the way they are, you are resisting what is before you. This causes tension – mental and emotional suffering.

However, can we say that all desire causes suffering?

You are a life form, just like the other forms of life that surround you in the environment. Every life form wants to be full fledged lives. Every life form wants to reach its full potential. With this comes the desire to live and to thrive.

How can suffering be a product of life’s desire to survive and thrive? It’s when our desires become compulsive where we find suffering, but if we desire for things consciously, then this is not suffering, this is life trying to reach its full potential.

Does this mean it’s the end of the road for me and my study of Buddhism – of course not. However, it supports my value of diversifying yourself. You want to be able to take away good things, and reject the things that don’t work for you and then find things that can be of a better fit.

What this means is, my intrigue with other philosophies will deepen, as I attempt to find answers to the questions that fit best for me.

To conclude, I will state that I advocate for no one philosophy, religion or esoteric practice. I advocate for diversity, openness and curiosity.

There are both golden nuggets and flaws in every system. It’s up to your own sense of curiosity and openness to find those things and then decide for yourself.

Look After Your Gut – Microbiomes & Your Health

We are learning more about the importance of the microbiome – this is the genetic material of all the microbes, including; bacteria, fungi and viruses that live inside the human body.

Interestingly enough, we have more microbes living inside of us than we contain cells – about 30 trillion cells and about 100 trillion microbes.

These microbes are microorganisms that serve many purposes, like helping us digest our food, regulating our immune systems, protecting us from other harmful bacteria, and even producing vitamins.

This may sound odd that you have small microorganisms that live within your body, but it only gets stranger from here.

These microorganisms contain their own genetic make up, meaning they have come from outside of you – They are separate to you, even though they live inside of you.

Scientists are now learning about the strong link between the health of your gut bacteria and conditions like depression. But before we dive into that, let me tell you more about these microscopic living entities that make a, “home, sweet home” out of your intestines.

To give you an idea as to how intelligent these microorganisms can be, there is a specific strain of bacteria that, in order to reproduce they must enter the stomach of a cat.

It is difficult for this bacteria to find its way into the cats stomach, so instead of entering in directly, this bacteria enters via the cats prey – the mouse. These microorganisms find their way into the food of the mice, and once they have entered the body of the mouse, they hijack its brain, causing a cascade of the neurochemical dopamine to be released.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. If the mouse’s brain is flooded with dopamine, it goes from its natural fight or flight state required to avoid dangerous predators such as the cat, to being in a more relaxed state with less inhibitions.

As a result of this flood of dopamine, the mouse starts to let its guard down and before you know it, its being snatched up by the cat.

Mission accomplished for this intelligent bacteria. They have found their way into the stomach of the cat, via the chewed up mouse. They can now begin their reproductive cycle.

As for the bacteria that lives in your gut, its now thought that the more diverse the bacteria in your intestinal tract, the better. Diversity suggests that your bacteria is better able to fight off and resist harmful pathogens. And, in the case of one strain not being able to do their job properly, this diversity can act as an insurance policy, with other strains being able to step in and cover.

There has been a huge link between gut health and depression. The gut is sometimes referred to as the second brain, and that’s no surprise seeing as though the gut is the biggest producer of serotonin – the happy chemical, second to the brain.

Apart from depression, poor gut health has also been linked to; diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome and many other mental health concerns – Just ask the mice, I am sure they can confirm this.

In order to look after your microscopic companions, you can –

1) eat fermented foods, such as; yoghurt, kefir, kombucha and
sauerkraut.
2) eat loads of fruit, veg and beans
3) avoid foods with artificial sweeteners
4) eat prebiotic foods
5) eat whole grains
6) eat foods rich in polyphenols; grapes, green tea, berries, dark choc, and yes RED WINE.
7) take probiotic supplements

Modes of Thinking & How Environment Plays A Role

With new technology comes new opportunity for neuroscientists to investigate the physical make up of the human nervous system.

Scanning the heads of some of the most enlightened monks, gurus and regular people is being done more and more, and we are beginning to uncover some of these new insights into brain and mind optimisation.

When you think about the life of a monk or guru, if you are like me you picture someone who is in touch, spending most of their days in natural settings.

There is new research to suggest that being out in nature can improve our well being – but how?

Scans reveal that when you are out in nature and your eyes are gazing towards objects that are far distances away, the parts of the brain responsible for clarity, peace and balance were activated.

It’s thought that, perhaps being in enclosed environments for too long leads to mental clutter – the reverse of peace and clarity.

Through online course work on a topic titled – “learning how to learn”, designed by an American engineer professor, we learn about the different modes of thinking – the focused mode and the diffused mode.

Both modes differ in their structure and function, both biologically and in your pattern of thought.

Focused mode is when you are in the middle of solving a problem. In this mode, you can hold a few items under your awareness, but that’s it. You can’t access the deeper parts of your brain that can give you some of the answers to your problems or understanding of something.

It’s in diffuse mode where you can take the foot off the accelerator and allow the mind to wander into deeper parts of its psych where helpful memories and links lie that can aid you in solving problems or understanding a concept.

It’s said that in diffuse mode, it’s great to get out into nature and exercise.

It’s only when you walk away from your enclosed environment and into a natural setting where you give your brain a chance to switch its modes, allowing you to make new connections in that more relaxed state of mind.

Those Were The Wild Days

I spent up to 2 months living in rural regions of Cambodia in some of the toughest conditions you can imagine.

🛏 My bed was a thin mattress placed on the floor under a mosquito net.

🚿 My shower was a small bucket that I had to fill up with water and pour over my head.

🚽 my toilet was a hole in the ground

🥘 my food was simple and not always so tasty, but quite nutritious.

In my room, I would encounter anything from frogs to rats.

These times stretched me in so many ways. They changed my perspective on many things and helped me appreciate some of the things I have at home.

I was pushed physically, mentally and emotionally, as I had to navigate my way through prolonged periods of discomfort, change and adaptation.

I engaged in labour intensive work, waking up off the mattress on the floor in a hot sweat each morning to start a hard days work building a school with our bare hands from the ground, up.

I didn’t always like the food, things got lonely very often and I was forced to sit with my mental madness on countless occasions.

I remember all the good times, as well. I got to do something good for people. I got to experience a culture that is so foreign and strange to me, my perceptions were continually challenged and turned upside down.

I hustled so hard when I was there, something that has proven to be a detriment.

However, I wouldn’t take it back for a thing.

For now though, it’s time to focus on my own health and well being. I neglected it for so long in the pursuit of “achieving” shit and “making a difference”.

I’m so exhausted now, and I’m enjoying my period of rest and recovery at the moment.

Once covid-19 has had its day and we are ready to get back to normal life, I plan to sketch out my next overseas journey where I can go and have fun, help people and learn new things about myself and life.

Cold Therapy – We Were Supposed To Engage With The Cold

This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was fresh off the plane after spending a year in Cambodia (first time I returned before going back for another 9 months).

🥶 Cold therapy

There are many benefits including –

❄️ Eases sores and aching muscles
❄️ Helps the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord)
❄️ Limits inflammatory response
❄️Engages with your vagus nerve – this is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm you down.

Do I recommend? – yes. Although, I would say you must ease yourself into the cold before jumping right in. Start with cold showers and then work your way up.

I returned back from Cambodia during a hot Sydney summer. Yet, there were many days I had to wear a jumper.

What was lacking was that relentless South East Asian humidity, and my body had yet to adjust without it. I would shiver at every little breeze in the beginning.

I can’t say the whole time was spent shivering. The heat here is also relentless, just in different ways.

After 2 straights years of not feeling anything close to what a winter is here, it made me curious as to see how my body would react to the 2020 winter.

I’ve been feeling the cold this winter, for sure – I am usually found wearing around 3 layers most of the time.

However, I sleep in the nude with the windows open at night – go figure.

I’ve always read that the most favourable sleeping environment is a cool one, and I find my body needs that amount of cold at night to ensure I don’t overheat in my sleep.

When I do overheat, I find that’s when I’m most likely to have nightmares. I can only imagine that during nightmares, your heart rate would increase.

With an increased heart rate, this puts a strain on your brain and body’s ability to move through those restorative cycles during your sleep.

So in the nude with the windows open it is if it means I can get those good sleep scores under my belt.

I have an appreciation for the cold for many reasons, as all stated above. The cold showers I’ve taken in the past have proven to be rewarding, helping my body feel fresh and my mind alert.

Although hard during the winter, going back to those cold showers is something I aspire to do.

Becoming more comfortable in these conditions is not only beneficial for your physiology, but it is also a mental exercise.

The Power of The Breath

Engage in diaphragmatic breathing. Due to our lifestyle, most of us tend to lose our abilities to breathe using our stomach. We build habits of breathing with our chests with is problematic, as that doesn’t give us our sufficient amount of oxygen needed.

When we are faced with stressful situations, our sympathetic nervous system engages, rushing all the blood from our mid body’s to our limbs. Most of the time though, we don’t require this fight or flight response.

By engaging in breathing, you can reduce blood pressure and heart rate, bringing the blood back into your intestinal areas and lungs where it’s needed, switching on the parasympathetic nervous system which brings us back to that homeostasis state.

Stress is a major issue, especially given the new lifestyle we have taken on. Stress can build up for decades, playing a role in being responsible for other chronic disease like cancer or heart disease.

Reduce that stress response and bring yourself back to your grounding with diaphragmatic breathing

Thought & Emotion – The Filters of Your Perception

Thought and emotion are like filters.

You take a picture of yourself with your phone, and although you are slightly displeased, the photo is good enough to upload to Instagram.

After all, there are filters which can either dull features or bring them out. There are filters to add more colour and texture.

By the time you finish touching the photo up with filters, you seem much happier and at more at ease with posting it – it may even give you a sense of pleasure.

Our day to day experience is like the raw photo, and our the thoughts and emotions we have are like the filters.

For example, someone says something you don’t like during a confrontation and you start to feel angry. If the emotion of anger is strong enough, it will stick around.

It was a single event that triggered the emotion, but because the emotion stays around, you start to get angry at everything.

The emotion will feed back into your thoughts, so that your thoughts become angry – a negative feedback loop. Your whole world is now anger; angry thoughts, more angry emotions, anger driven decisions, anger driven interactions, anger driven reactions etc.

This event triggered anger and now anger has become the temporary filter to your experience as the observer.

Because we become so identified with our thoughts and emotions, they start to feel like our true reality. We are identified with them, so whatever program they run, we will most likely believe.

This analogy has come from trying my best to stay present, particularly when intense emotions arise. Leaning in and observing has taught me just how powerful these filters are in terms of how you perceive life.

Being present and trying to find a place of objectivity during these moments can help ground you back into reality, where most thoughts and emotions have no real basis.

Meridian Points – The Traditional Chinese Medicine Way of Healing

There are meridian points that run along parts of your body. These meridians contain a flow of energy within them. This concept is from Chinese medicine and is similar to acupuncture and acupressure, in which these meridian points are tapped.

The tapping is intended to restore balance and resolve any issue with energy blockage, which is believed to be the cause of physical and emotional pain.

According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, blocks or imbalances in the flow of energy lead to ill health. The interesting thing about traditional Chinese medicine is, they matched colours with emotions, and they also allocated each organ with a specific emotion.

Liver – often associated with stress
Heart – Associated with love and happiness
Stomach – worry, anxiety and stress
Lung – Greif and sadness
Kidney – Fear

In the Ayurvedic system, apart from yoga being used as a tool for self-realisation, or enlightenment, it can also achieve a balance of the body’s energy, or prana, by clearing blockages that may have gathered in the body overtime.

When the mind has been unable to process things correctly, unresolved emotions can get stored in the body. Once they become stored in the body, they can condition the body into feeling a certain way. So, what began as a thought in your mind, becomes energy in your body.

A thought can come and go very quickly in the mind. Emotions are different, however. Its our nervous system that creates these thoughts and, the very beginning of thes emotions. Once the brain decides what emotion it wants, the pituitary gland starts a process with its endocrine system counterparts, to release hormones and peptides throughout the body.

These hormones and peptides released by the endocrine system contain molecules that relate to the thoughts that began in the mind. If you were having fearful thoughts, these molecules most likely make up things like cortisol or adrenaline.

These things impact the body in many ways. If you cant see how, then go and do something that scares you or gets you hyped up and then watch what you body does.

The main meridian points used in EFT –

SS: The Sore Spot – Neurolymphatic point
EB: Beginning of the Eye Brow – Bladder Meridian
SE: Side of the Eye – Gall Bladder Meridian
UE: Under the Eye – Stomach Meridian
UN: Under the Nose – Governing Vessel
Ch: Chin – Central Vessel
CB: Beginning of the Collar Bone – Kidney Meridian
BN: Below Nipple – Liver Meridian
UA: Under the Arm – Spleen Meridian
TH: Top of the Head – Governing Vessel
Th: Thumb- Lung Meridian
IF: Index Finger – Large Intestine Meridian
MF: Middle Finger – Heart Protector
BF: Baby Finger – Heart Meridian
KC: Karate Chop – Small Intestine Meridian