I've recently started a new publication on Medium called "Neuroscience of Aliveness." I'll be posting most of my writing on there for now. Check it out!
The brain changes quickly.
In milliseconds, neurons are all talking to each other, arguing, trying to decide who knows what's real.
Some networks agree with each other, or work out their differences, and then sing as choirs in networks.
The networks, in turn, then argue with each other on a higher level. The argument is the same.
"We know what's real."
"No, we know what's real."
Some networks agree with each other, and dominate the conversation.
"You're holding a red balloon." The visual center has some networks saying ,"RED!!!" and some saying, "ROUND" and others saying "SHINY," while the tactile (touch) areas say, "RUBBERY" and "BOUNCY."
They yell to the higher level areas, which compare these combinations of ideas to memory. "Yes, we've seen this pattern before. You can squeeze it, but not too hard."
Every day, these giant events happen millions of times inside our skulls.
Our brains are always trying to figure out what is real and more importantly, trying to predict what will be real in the future.
Over time, the neurons that win their arguments become dominant. The brain networks that win their arguments become dominant.
The patterns that get stronger move from the more "casual" brain networks, that can update quickly, to more "serious" networks that are stable and stubborn.
We decide what's real.
These decisions are basically our habitual emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. These are what our brain knows is real (as much as it can know anything).
These are what we are as adults, for the most part.
When we decide that we want to become healthier, what we're trying to do is change our well-worn patterns.
We're trying to change what our brain knows is real.
This is not easy. You might have a thought one day, "Hey I'd like to be happier."
This thought comes from neurons and brain networks all whispering to each other. Part of the thought is casual, part of it serious.
The casual parts are saying, "Hey, isn't this interesting?!"
The serious parts are saying, "Hey, this has been painful for a while now."
Health, in its simplest sense, is freedom. Freedom to feel fully alive. Freedom to go in any direction our Aliveness takes us in.
Illness is an ability to follow our Aliveness due to the restrictions of habitual patterns that, over time, injure us.
Just like a bad knee makes us less able to appreciate the beauty of a walk in the park, a habit of blaming others for our anxiety makes us less able to appreciate the beauty of our relationships.
Getting healthier means changing what our brain knows is real.
Getting healthier means supporting the "quieter" neurons that have been telling us losing for a long time, while our patterns have been winning.
Getting healthier is not easy. But it also is easy.
If you want to change a habit, it'll take as much energy as the energy that went into creating it.
But getting healthier is a vague idea. What we really want is to feel healthier now.
And tomorrow. And the next day.
And this is actually easy.
Feeling healthier comes from taking tiny actions. Anything new makes the brain go nuts. It becomes a dopamine fest.
Aliveness is the feeling of noticing that we're alive and feeling that it's a good thing.
Aliveness comes from pleasant surprises. They wake us up and remind us, "Oh, that's what I'm here for."
When we take a tiny action, and it makes us feel alive, that's making us healthier tomorrow, but more importantly, it making us feel healthier today.
When we look at life through this lens, we can ask, "Where will my Aliveness come from next?"
Then we can take a small step in that direction, and we get healthier.
p.s. I know I haven't described the method for always achieving Aliveness. I didn't want this post to go on for days. But if you're interested, you can find more in my free email course.
Health is balancing.
We have a thousand forces pulling our minds and bodies in all directions.
Our energy can go in one of those directions at one time.
Either we can take care of our business, our relationships, or our self care, but usually not all at once.
We get sick (physically or mentally) when we put too much energy into one area of life and neglect other areas.
If we work all the time, our relationships with others suffer, and so do our minds and bodies from lack of self care.
If we spend all our time with friends and family, we will lose connection with ourselves and our goals.
If we spend all of our time meditating, exercising, or at the spa, we won't be maintaining relationships with others, and we won't have time or energy to work on constructing our goals.
When we work a little bit at a time on each one, and then move to the next, we practice balancing.
We are never actually balanced because, again, a thousand forces constantly pulling us in every direction.
But health is a process. It's the process of balancing the energetic flows in our lives, so that they all get tied smoothly together, rather than pulling us apart.
A healthy life is not a finished product. It's what you get when you look around and realize that you feel connected to all things.
After all, your life is not about any one part of it. Your Aliveness is all of you.
You can and do have relationships with everything in your life. Not just your friends, or your family, or your pets, or your phone. You have relationships with parts of yourself, your job, your beliefs, as manifested by "self talk," the conversations you have that nobody else hears.
What does it mean to have a relationship?
A relationship is an exchange of energy and information. It is a living process, meaning that it is born, grows, lives as long as there is a continued exchange, and eventually dies once it no longer meshes with the ecosystem of relationships in which it lives.
You have relationships inside you. Those relationships affect your relationships to people around you. Relationships with others affect your relationships with yourself.
All life satisfaction and dissatisfaction is the result of the quality of your relationships at the moment.
Relationships increase our life satisfaction, make us feel more alive, when they move toward balance and equal exchange (of energy and/or information). They make us less happy (less fully alive) when they move away from balance and move toward lopsidedness.
When you tell your friend a secret, and they tell you one of theirs, you feel more satisfied with life, filled with more aliveness, because you actually are more alive. You have strengthened ties to another living being. This makes you...more...alive.
When you feel threatened (and I like the SCARF model of psychological threat), it is the result of moving toward imbalance in a relationship. A friend who listens to your secret and doesn't share anything like that with you, and perhaps they threaten to tell someone else about it if you don't give them your new shoes. An imbalance makes a relationships less sustainable, and the threat of losing relationships makes us feel less alive.
Relationships with parts of ourselves are tricky, but they work the same way. Inner voices talk to each other, or talk to you about each other. Even though it all might seem like it's "you" or "I" in there, you're really a "we," just like me, and everyone you know.
The part of us that wants to be ultra-successful has a relationship to the part that wants to just enjoy life as it is without having to put conditions of achievement on our perceived happiness. Those two parts can be at odds, or they can have a balanced relationship. At odds, they fight over who gets to control our energy, and both will lose, as will we. That's lose-lose(-lose). In a good relationship, they take turns being in charge of our energy, and they don't hog the wheel for too long before allowing the other to steer. Then we get to enjoy life both now and later. Win, and win.
We can use this framework of "everything is a relationship" to probe parts of our lives that we're not happy with. If you have a topic of inner turmoil on your mind, ask yourself, "What relationship is at the center of this?" Is it a relationship inside you, or with someone else?
Once you find the relevant relationship, ask yourself, "How is this relationship unbalanced?" What directions are the energy and information flowing in? Then ask, "What would it look like if it were balanced, reciprocal, smoothly flowing in both directions?" What is the tiniest step you can take to move in that direction?
Take it. It will make you more alive.
Sometimes I tell people that I have a podcast, and that it's called the Slow Growth Podcast. My favorite response is when someone says, "Why would you want slow growth?" Since it's usually in a light social context, I'll say something like, "Exactly! Right? Why would anyone want that? Maybe you should check it out."
But let's get into it here. Why slow growth? What benefit would growing more slowly bestow on you? To be clear, I'm talking mostly about psychological, social, and professional growth, but it also applies to other areas of life, like business growth, financial growth, and physical growth.
First, let's think about the opposite: fast growth. At its most extreme, you have things cancer and nuclear explosions (out of control cell growth and energetic chain reactions). This hints at why growth that is too fast can be bad. It is hard to control, and it spreads to places you might not want it. It makes the environments around it more fragile and unstable.
But let's look at a more nuanced version. Let's say your arms suddenly started to grow really quickly. What part of your arms are we talking about? The bones? The muscles would also have to grow at the same speed, as would the tendons, ligaments, fascia, arteries, veins, and nerves, or things would get pretty gross. All of these systems that pervade your arms would have to grow at the same speed. They'd have to communicate and agree. But even if they did, at first you wouldn't be able to effectively use your arms for anything. In childhood, your brain spent years mapping out all the tiny possible motions you could make with your arms. If the length of your arms change, the brain will take a while to catch up with the new physics. This brings us to the central point.
Processes in complex systems evolve at different speeds.
In order for different processes to coordinate and work together, which is necessary in almost every living system, the processes have to match speeds in some way. Living systems include social systems like families, friend groups, and organizations. The faster the processes in these systems are moving, the harder it is for them to match speeds. Small differences in speed are not a big deal if we're walking hand in hand. Small differences in speed can wreck stuff fast if we're holding hands in separate cars while doing ninety on a free way.
Now imagine yourself, a complex system. Your mind is made of many sub-processes. Your friendly self, humorous self, professional self, angry self, selfish self, selfless self, hungry self, regretful self, etc. In order to stay sane, these parts need to maintain some kind of friendly communication and agreement with each other, or else you get things like dissociation. Also, severe anxiety and depression might be said to be mismatches between certain psychological processes. So the goal of personal growth cannot safely or realistically be "as fast as possible." It must be "as fast as the slowest parts of me can grow," otherwise you start to tear yourself into pieces. Slow growth allows the different parts of us to match speeds more easily, so our whole selves can grow.
As an afterword, let's take this idea to business and financial growth. Businesses have many moving parts, including people, products, and connections to other companies, just to start. If these are not well coordinated, like with a sudden tripling of production speed without an increase in distribution speed, the business gets hurt or dies. Financially, while many people do eventually go on to thrive after winning the lottery, the first few years can be extremely painful because of immensely increased social pressure and emotional confusion that has been called "wealth shock." It's clear that winning a fortune is more risky for a human being than building one slowly.
At the very least, if you get rich (or grow in any way) slowly, you get to face all of the accompanying challenges one at a time, rather than all at once.
Still think slow growth isn't for you? Ask your whole self.
My name is Dave Wolovsky, and I'm a teacher and coach based in Brooklyn, NY. I have created this site to synthesize all of my experiences, training, and research in one place. The main experiences I refer to include: studying Positive Psychology, studying neuroscience and education, practicing yoga and Tai Chi to rehabilitate my knee after years of injuries and finally ACL surgery.
These experiences, among others, have provided the basis for my current work, which is studying the mechanisms of physical and psychological growth, and help people find the right tools to navigate their own living process.
EffortWise is my name for the practice of balancing the opposites of doing and not-doing. As living processes, our experience is cyclical, while also always changing. Life is full of seeming paradoxes that all get resolved when you slow down and zoom in enough to see the nuance. We need balanced opposites. Injury (physical and mental) occurs from prolonged imbalance.
EffortWise also refers to the following equation that I made up. Growth = Effort x Rest. Effort and rest need to be balanced in order to maximize growth. When they are out of balance, growth slows down, and injury eventually results. Wise effort means balancing effort and rest, being deliberate about when and how we exert effort, and when and how we allow ourselves to rest. When effort and rest are well balanced, we grow easily, with less suffering. This is because we are a living process. Our level of functioning is based on how alive we feel.
When we view the world through the philosophical lens of living processes and the practical lens of experiencing aliveness, life gets really simple. Aliveness is the feeling that simply being alive is amazing and enough. The more aliveness we can feel, the more it spreads through our system and our communities. The more aliveness we spark in ourselves, the more we spark in others, and the more we spark in others, the more easily it comes back to us.
I have spent many years trying to figure out the most effective methods for teaching people how to learn. After a long time searching, I now know that it is simple. Humans learn by connecting to other humans. The way we grow and transform is in safe interactions and kind relationships. We must constantly be willing to fall apart in order to become stronger and smarter, and we are only willing to fall apart when we feel emotionally safe enough.
This is what I most deeply try to provide for myself, a safe place to fall apart. This is also what I most deeply try to provide for others. I do it through coaching and teaching.
Achieve Your Ultimate Goal First: A Short Recipe for Life Satisfaction