The Brain in my Pocket

I was listening to a chat on the radio this morning, about how dependent we have become on our devices. We no longer have to remember phone numbers or addresses. Facebook reminds us of birthdays and our trusty phones have reminders set for everything from the morning alarm to the hair appointment. It’s like keeping my brain in my pocket.
Our lives are so different to when I was a child. I had a telephone directory in my head. It was so easy to remember telephone numbers. There was no need to write them down, I just committed them to memory and there they were when I needed them. Snail mail meant everyone had an address with a postal code. I wrote many letters and always knew the addresses and postal codes. My head was a sponge that soaked up information and my filing system was efficient, so recall was quick and easy.
Today, listening to the radio it dawned on me how lazy I have become with my brain. I could justify this by saying that I am older, it’s natural to be more forgetful. After all, this is what we are told by society. It’s our go-to for all ailments… remember dear, you are older now. What a lovely excuse for being less than we used to be. I don’t want to be less, at least not yet. I work hard to maintain a level of physical fitness and I eat a clean diet of whole foods. I drink water and try to get outside regularly for a dose of vitamin D and some fresh air.
Everyone knows that to be fit takes constant training. What we don’t use, we lose and physical fitness really shows us this. If I get a cold and stop training for just two weeks and it feels like I am back to square one. Perhaps we should be seeing our brain as a muscle which needs constant training. So here is a controversial question… is “dementia” always a thing or can it be that we are forgetting things because we stop using our brains so they get “unfit” and don’t work as well as before? What we don’t use, we lose.
As a Pilates instructor, I see the effect of Pilates on the body and the brain. The brain’s primary job is to run the body. It controls everything from breath and heartbeat to how we move and what we do. Mostly we do all of this sub-consciously. Pilates is what I call prescribed movement. I am asking you to move in a specific way with specific muscles. In the beginning people really struggle with this, there is a war between what I am asking and what the brain wants to do. It’s a long way from the brain to the feet and I notice people lose their connection with their feet first, as though the brain’s field of influence is “shrinking back” towards the head. This improves with time but the minute you go off shoe shopping in your head, stop being there in the room, inside your body with your thoughts, that is when you end up using your back or doing the wrong exercise.
I believe that conscious movement, moving with conscious intent and staying conscious of my thoughts, is the best way to keep my brain and my body connected, healthy and alive. When I allow myself to run on autopilot, I am keeping myself small, staying on old neural pathways. Staying conscious and adding variety to my day by doing things differently means I am building new neural pathways. I like to think of it as brain training. So here is a challenge to do things differently… Let’s work harder to remember the date and what our schedule is for the day, so that when that reminder pings in our pocket we know what it is for and we are way ahead of it.

Until next time, be conscious, and keep moving…

Birds of my Mind

Mornings in Barrydale are melodic with the cheery greetings of a variety of birds. The chirps, warbles and tweets of the garden birds compete with the wistful call of distant guinea fowl, roosters crowing and the cry of peacocks. This morning there was an urgent gathering of weavers, sun-birds, bishop birds, doves and a robin in the shrubs below my window. The plants were alive with hopping, chattering birds. I learnt as a child to look closely at these gatherings to see who was causing such a cacophony. It may be a cat, or a mongoose, but could just as well be a snake.

It is a strange feeling, investigating such a gathering. Physically you go into fight and flight with your head telling you to move in one direction, towards the noise, while your legs want to carry you in the opposite direction for fear of finding a snake. Boomslangs and cobras, both very toxic, are common in Barrydale so you find your eyeballs hopping all over the place. Do you look in the bushes or on the ground? You find yourself walking like a chameleon: pick up a foot, wait to check three times where to put your next step, even when you are on the lawn, afraid you may step on a snake. Relief floods the body when you find a fat, furry cat stalking through the flower bed. The worst is when you spot the sleek, scaled ribbon of snake, grateful that you know where it is but flooded by the extra surge of adrenaline which your body kindly supplies for your rapid retreat. There are times when you find nothing, when the gathering of excited birds abruptly adjourns and they fly away to continue with their day. I like to call these twittering gatherings bird parties, though it may be better to call them bird parliaments, as they seem very worked up about what appears to be nothing.

There is a big shift towards conscious living on our planet and we often hear about mindfulness, meditation and the importance of controlling our thoughts. My mind is a part of me, just as my hand or foot is a part of me, but it isn’t all of me. My mind is there to keep me safe, to warn me of danger, even when I can’t see it, like a party of garden birds, chirping and twittering in the bushes. A word, a situation or an event can send my thoughts into frenzy, crowding my head with scenarios and scripts of what I will say, twitters and squawks of warning from the birds of my mind. My neurology cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined so my body goes into fight or flight and I start to do a mental chameleon walk because I know I am going to find a “snake”. I jump to the worst case scenario immediately. My blood chemistry changes as the adrenaline and cortisol feed my need to take on the threat or to run. This happens many times in a day, sometimes for hours but often just for minutes or even just seconds. The birds of my mind may well be right, there may be a snake in the bush but sometimes it is just a fat cat or most often, just a bird party which calms and melts away after a while.

Mindfulness is about knowing the difference between a real threat and a bird party. When I find myself in the metaphysical bushes, hunting a snake, I take a deep breath, centre myself. I thank the birds of my mind for their warnings and then I take control of my thoughts. I decide whether the threat is real or if it is the makings of my imagination and I take appropriate action, facing the threat or dismissing it as the bird party it is. Being mindful, noticing what you are thinking and knowing that you have the ultimate control over what you think, can make the difference between being in a state of constant stress and worry, and staying calm and centred.

Until next time, stay mindful, be conscious and Keep Moving…