Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pathways to Positive: Reinventing the Future

By Susie Crossland-Dwyer

Almost exactly two years ago I had a cycling accident. Thursday evenings had become a routine to ride with a local group out of Element Cycles. I was helping lead a couple of new riders down one of Cincinnati’s biggest hills, Miami Road, when a car ran a stop sign and pulled out in front of me. I had actually prefaced our descent with the commentary to the group, “Be very careful on this hill. Take it slow. Last year Chris crashed going too fast and had a third degree separation in his shoulder as a result.” But, lighting struck twice as I slammed on my brakes to avoid being t-boned by the car and went over my handlebars landing on my head at 35 mph. We took an ambulance straight to Tri-Health hospital. After hours of waiting for CAT scan and x-ray results, I was sent home with negative tests (apart from a severe concussion), anti-nausea medication, and a prescription to “take it easy.” After what felt like a brush with death, I knew I would have to do more than that. Despite having opened studio s two months earlier and FREAKING OUT about the amount of work to be done, I would need to go above and beyond doctor’s orders for rest.
I'm smiling but the helmet tells the real story of the damage done.

For days afterwards, I couldn’t lift my head on my own to sit up. For weeks afterward, I would need Chris’s help driving me to and from work as well as with performing routine tasks. Two years later, I’m still working hard to stay on top of the residual issues with my head and neck.

This week I had an “ah-ha!” moment after my semi-weekly physical therapy treatment with Eric Oliver. In short, we figured out that I was under-using some muscles of my neck and over-using others as a result of the patterns I’d created to function and protect myself post-crash. The simple solution that I had failed to execute these two years was to create new neuromuscular (brain to muscle) pathways for my body to function in its most optimal, efficient manner.

Wow, was it really that simple? I had been doing stretching, Pilates, massage, cranial-sacral work, trigger point therapy, physical therapy (all which helped tremendously) but the thing I had failed to do was create new neuro-pathways. I mean, c’mon, recognizing the body's patterns is my job and I pride myself on quickly seeing others’ good and bad habits! How did I miss seeing this? It is with my realization that I begin to question how automatic and static my daily patterns are. How many other neural pathways have I failed to create simply out of habit and, dare I say, laziness? And, if this pattern is pervasive, how do I go about breaking through those barriers to new thinking and doing? Time will tell how effectively I’m re-training my muscles through conscious and manual activation but, yes-- it may just be that simple.

central and peripheral nervous system
For many years, even up until the last decade, science concluded that the brain wasn’t changeable and that the creation of new neurons was impossible. It was only recently that “a few iconoclastic neuroscientists challenged the paradigm that the adult brain cannot change and made discovery after discovery that, to the contrary, it retains stunning powers of neuroplasticity. The brain can indeed be rewired. It can expand the area that is wired to move fingers, forging new connections that underpin the dexterity of an accomplished violinist. It can activate long-dormant wires and run new cables like an electrician bringing an old house up to code, so that regions that once saw can instead feel or hear. The adult brain, in short, retains much of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer think, imagine and dream. ”

Enrique & J.Lo Chicago's United Center, 2012
It is in the same week that Chris and I ventured to Chicago to see one of our shared favorite artists, Enrique Iglesias, in concert. Dorky, I know, but his music has followed us through the 17 years of our relationship and now when we listen to it, it tells us the history of our past together. Dorky, but really romantic. 

Hours of driving to the Windy City led us to read aloud some of Chicago’s founding history. It's history tells the story of how it went from unsalvagable swamp land to an architectural and historical wonder of the Midwest. “Make no little plans”, was stated by one of the city’s founders, Daniel Burnham. It stuck out at me and AGAIN begged the question: how many of our 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections in the brain are we actually using? Do we continue to have a founder-like view of the world or have we stopped trying at innovation because the world looks/seems complete and we've let our brain take rest?

With my clients I often use the analogy of a path in a field that you've traveled many times. The route is visible, the grass is flattened and worn down by repeated use. It's comfortable, it's familiar, you know where it leads and what to expect along the way. A new path feels weird under the feet the first few times; you might step on something you don't like or discover something neat that you didn't know was there. You just have to travel down the new path a few times before you know how it will work for you and if you like it. Give it a chance.

The wildly amazing thing about the brain is that the more new paths in the grass you create, the more it encourages you to keep treading new territory and, before you know it, the field is covered in a web of new possibilities. So, perhaps, it's just sustaining the few uncomfortable first tries and then letting the wheel turn almost unassisted.

It's been several weeks now and I've been experimenting on myself. As is most always the case, step #1 was recognizing the issue.

Step #2 then became a mental pep-talk to the muscles on my neck. "Okay, guys you've been slacking for good a reason but it's time to go back to doing what you are meant to do."

Step #3 was encouraging new patterns in a tactile way. Each week before my long runs, Eric (or husband Chris) was taping my neck as shown below to a) encourage correct usage of my shoulder, neck, and back muscles; b) serve as a reminder when my posture or head position breaks down mid-run (the tape literally pulls and I can feel I'm off center as my head tends to float to the right);  
c) increase blood flow to the areas where the tape sits.
You've seen it in the Olympics b/c kinesio tape works wonders.
Real Ease neck cradle feels like heaven.
Step #4 has become re-enforcing the new patterns by setting my alarm to do posture checks throughout the day. Or, if pain starts to show up, immediately treating it with stretching or trigger point massage. On my short runs I've also started to rhythmically, and somewhat forcefully, tap on places of my neck that I am re-training to work a bit harder to restore balance.

And step #5 is another method of staying ahead of the curve. Chris and I have made it part of our bed-time routine to pro-actively treat our "bad" spots. He has foot issues and massages it while I put my head in my "neck cradle" which essentially takes the pressure of off my spine and into my occiputs.

The wheel is turning and I've begun to notice an improvement. Will the changes last? Who knows. Will every new pattern or way of thinking in life be this easily created? Doubtful. But, if nothing else, it becomes a fun experiment in potential. This method of creation shows me what's possible of the conscious mind. My next experiment in new behavior and changing the BIG PROBLEMS in life becomes addressing the subconscious--the thing that controls 96% of how we make decisions and whether or not new behavior sticks. But that's a beast for another blog.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Always Trust in the Difficult

We would like to introduce you to Nancy Spence, Ph.D., author of Life Medicine: Wisdom for Extraordinary Living and creator/ facilitator of the ikigai workshop, "What Should I Do with My Life?" A great majority of our insight, and any wisdom we may have, comes from having this woman in our lives. We invited her to join us in blogging as we know you will enjoy her depth of knowledge and insight. (Luckily, she also happens to be my mom!) For more on her and her current work, check out stay tuned for future entries.

Photograph: Electric Artists

Maybe the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke was right: "Always trust in the difficult."

Take the case of Grant Achatz. He's the wildly inventive creator who serves up olive-oil lollipops and apple-taffy helium balloons at his 3-star Chicago eatery, Alinea. According to the website Next Level, patrons vie for seating "like little monsters clobbering for Lady Gaga tickets the moment sales open." 

At age 34, Achatz was named "best chef in America." But, at age 33, things weren't nearly as upbeat. He was diagnosed with stage-four tongue cancer.  His options: Cut out a piece of his tongue...or die. Choosing an experimental treatment instead, Achatz could hardly eat and lost his sense of taste. But he courageously kept working. He shifted his focus to the smell, sight and sound of foods while his sous chefs did the tasting for him. 

During his last lecture at Columbia University, historian Charles Beard was asked to summarize in five minutes everything he had learned in a half century of teaching. Beard said he could do better: He could sum it all up in four sentences. One of his sentences was this: "The bee that robs the flower also fertilizes it."

I imagine that Achatz would concur. He says his encounter with cancer actually made him a better chef. As he healed and his taste buds returned, he noticed that he understood flavors in new and inventive ways. Now a leader in the emerging field of "molecular gastronomy," he creates cuisine described as "genre-bending." In 2011, Time Magazine named him one of the "most influential people in America"--a true "culinary miracle worker."

Rilke would not be surprised. "How should we forget those ancient myths about dragons that turn into princesses?" he wrote. "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage."

Too often I hear clients tell me that they can't do what they love "because..." But what's embedded in their pain, difficulty, tragedy, disability or scar is an invitation to do what Achatz did: Get creative, 'think different,' go deeper, be courageous.

When they do, they too come out the other side to make their own 'wow' contribution.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Adjusting the Sails

By Chris Dwyer
I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.
-Jimmy Dean

I may not always be the proverbial king of my castle, but I am certainly the king of my kitchen. Even so, when the Lady of the Castle (my lovely wife) asks me to do the dishes, I'm totally cool with that. If I'm in the act of doing them, as I often am, and she has a helpful hint, that's fine, too. But heaven forbid, if she tells me to do the dishes and THEN tells me how to do them, I go completely berserk. Dishes almost get tossed against the wall and the wife. This is because telling me what to do plus telling me how to do it somehow hacks into my psychology's circuitry and unleashes my hellspawn-husband virus. I’m sorry-- it's terrible. I hate it. But I don't hate myself, because it's just the way God made me.
I'm not shifting blame here. In fact, I take full responsibility for having some responsibility. 

My wife and I have been working on doing a better job seeing things at a BIG-picture level. Before we blame each other, or other people, we try to see if there is a better way to design "the system". The larger system so often implicitly coerces people into doing crazy things they don't want to do. And systems usually obey very predictable behavior. So really, what I've decided to do is take full responsibility for not being in harmony with the system around me. I can either work to change myself, or I can work to change the system, or both. This strategy has helped save us (me) from countless Catherine Kieu Becker (the woman who cut off her husband's penis and threw it in the garbage disposal). 

I used to do infrared inspections for a large manufacturing facility called Bicycle Playing Cards. Un-scheduled equipment breakdowns are every plant manager's worst nightmare, so the accountants and engineers are big proponents of preventative maintenance strategies like infrared. My mandate was to keep the motors alive or else know exactly when they would die. 
Of the thousands of motors that I inspected in the plant, there was one tiny motor that was far and away more important than every other motor. It was the lynchpin of the whole factory. If it failed, the whole plant shut down. It was the vacuum motor! Without the vacuum motor, all the junk accumulated in the factory and effed-up the whole process. Las Vegas herself depended on that vacuum motor.
Our kitchen has a figurative vacuum motor-- the lynchpin of the system that could unfasten bliss at any moment. Working the system backwards, we figured out that my dishes only needed her special cleaning advice because I didn't soak them first. But I didn't soak mine first because the sink was full of her dishes because the dishwasher wasn't emptied. But I couldn't empty the dishwasher because there were too many cycling water bottles drying out on the limited countertop real estate. Water bottles were the lynchpin! 

What we needed, therefore, was a better drying mechanism and storage system for our water bottles. But that would require a larger system change upstream. Next, Susie and I sat down at the drawing board to see if we could map out a better system for our household. Here is the plan we came up within reverse order.

GOAL = Have more free time and stay married
Step 6) Stop buying (or accepting) junk into our house
Step 5) Deeply, quickly, and even impulsively get rid of the junk we already have
Step 4) Get rid of our TV from TV cabinet 
Step 3) Retrofit TV cabinet into a "recreation locker"
Step 2) Find home for water bottles
Step 1) Empty dishwasher in the morning and load/run it at night

All the crap that's normally spews across the floor after a workout has a proper home now

Water bottle clutter almost ruined our marriage until they found a home