Monday, October 24, 2011
The Buddha once said that, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one that gets burned.” Contemporary neuroscience research supports this nugget of wisdom. Continuous negative thinking, feelings, and actions promote the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, into the body which keeps one in state of high alert, flight, fight, and panic. The longer one remains in a negative state the more compromised the immune system becomes. Depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, overeating, digestion problems, allergies, memory lapses, and drug abuse, among other things, are indicators of one’s level of stress and negativity.
On the other hand, positive thinking leads to optimism and happiness. The degree of happiness, how often one is happy, and how long their happiness lasts, especially in the face of adversity, is strongly associated with a positive sense of well being and good health. Happiness is an excellent predictor of how long and well one will live.
The subject of this column is, “How Negative Are Tribal Communities?” I wanted to write about “how happy are tribal communities,” but felt I should first explore the domain of negativity. This particular column is inspired by the many discussions I have had with Indigenous folks about the high level of negativity in their communities. I hear this most often when I am doing presentations on my writing and research about the connections between mindfulness, oppression, health, neurodecolonization, and Native Peoples. Much of the time the topic of negativity in tribal communities is raised by our young, idealistic university students that want to return home to help their communities but are concerned that the negativity will take its toll on them. For the purposes of this column negativity can be regarded as actions, thinking, and feelings that are hostile, obstructive, disagreeable, gloomy, and pessimistic. Before launching into an estimation of how happy tribal communities are, it is important to examine negativity since it is the counter-force to our happiness.
From neuroscience studies we know that the human brain is wired for negativity. Of all species, humans are the Olympic champions of negativity. While we humans do display many acts of compassion and kind respect to the people and things we’ve come to trust and love, in most cases research shows that we are much more likely to take the low road of negativity when we get annoyed or upset. In the book, Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom, Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, M.D. discuss the human brain, its functions, and its evolutionary history. While they delve into the many beautiful attributes about our brains they conclude that we are programmed for negativity, which is a bit depressing. Oops. There goes my negativity.
Still, there is strength in brain negativity according to Hanson and Mendius; without negativity it would be difficult for our species to survive. For instance, imagine one of our ancient ancestors hiking along the Missouri river heading home after a long visit with relatives downstream. After many miles and hours of not eating, she or he suddenly comes upon a bush that is loaded with bright, beautiful, plump berries, which have never been seen before. Two alarms in the brain go off. The first is “Wow!” “Food!” The second is more measured, thoughtful, and pessimistic: “Hmmmm. Looks tasty but what if they’re poison? Better to wait and eat when I get home; I wonder what mom has for dinnar?” In the second scenario negativity certainly becomes an attribute if, in fact, the berries are poison: disaster averted.I think about our negative brain bias as functioning as an on and off switch that is most often, or most easily flipped to the on position.
While negativity resides in our feelings and behaviors it is most abundant in our thoughts. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has estimated that we humans have between 12,000 to 50,000 thoughts a day; some folks may have as many as 60,000 (note: I’ve only found this information in second hand sources so I am not sure how factual it is. I am continuing to look for the original study). It is also estimated that up to 80 percent of our thoughts are negative – some of them little irritants like “I don’t like the color of the paint on my bedroom walls,” or “I don’t like how her perfume smells,” or “I don’t like how my teenager wears his pants.” On the flip side, negative thoughts can be horrifying beyond belief. For instance, one can have sustained, intense traumas that they have contracted a deadly illness or that the world is going to end in a fireball of destruction, or after they die they will be doomed to spending an afterlife in extreme, eternal suffering. This last example, in my opinion, is when negativity become a liability, a burden, and unhealthy since the brain has wandered into and imagined a future that may never be.
Let’s define negative thinking a bit more. Negative thoughts arise as we continuously reflect on the many mistakes, guilt, failings, regrets, and secrets we hold from the past and present. They arise because of our uncertainty of the future as we constantly imagine how it may or may not be (which was certainly the case at the end of the last paragraph). Finally, negative thoughts come up because of what we are taught to appreciate, be fearful of, and to devalue regarding our own or another’s gender, race, social status, and perceived intelligence and attractiveness.
In all, many of our negative thoughts about ourselves, others, and the future have no merit or basis of truth whatsoever. And for that matter, they have only limited value when we consider our past, since it is the past, and in order for them to have value we must use the “negative” experiences in ways that create positive responses to similar situations that may come up. For instance, if you’ve said or done something to someone that was hurtful in the past due to your negativity, in the present be mindful to not repeat that action. Much of time easier said than done due to the negative bias in the human brain.
The negativity bias is well-supported and documented by the research of Dr. John T. Cacioppo, a distinguished professor and the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Dr. Cacioppo used sophisticated imaging technology to show that the brain reacts more strongly to stimuli that is considered negative. His studies show that there is a greater surge in electrical activity when one is exposed to what is perceived as negative versus what is considered to be positive or neutral. In other words, our views are much more likely to be shaped by pessimistic news than positive news.
The last bit of information that I believe is important for us to know about our negative brain bias is that it has been around for hundreds of millions of years. Evolutionary brain biologists refer the oldest part of our brain the hind brain or reptilian brain which we share in common with all other species that have a backbone. So, our ancestors were right – we are related to all life. Our reptilian brain is on duty 24/7 and is in charge of our survival. It controls our body functions such as breathing, heart rate, balance and body temperature, which are essential to life. This part of the brain is regarded as being reliable but rigid and compulsive. It is most often associated with what some neuroscientists refer to the five F’s: fighting, feeding, fearing, fleeing, and fornicating. Defending territory, ideas, beliefs, and your girl or boyfriend, husband or wife from other suitors using aggression is a key function of this part of the brain. In other words, “might is right!” Sexual behavior is instinctive and responses are automatic and our emotions are more stimulated and negativity and anxiety are higher.
When our reptilian brain is in charge, which is a good part of the time for most of us, it is much harder to access the neural networks in our brains that are in charge of compassion, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence.
In the book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, authors Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman tell us that the anterior cingulate is a special part of our brain that is involved with some of our deepest levels of humanity. For instance, our compassion, social awareness, and ability to recognize the feelings of others (emotional intelligence) is located here. This region of our brain is associated with our ability to decrease our propensity to express and react with anger and fear. It is where our deepest feelings of love reside. Newberg and Waldman are quick to point out that the neurons in this area are very vulnerable to being overridden by our reptilian brain which has been around much longer. In their view, we are much more likely to engage in fighting, aggression, anger and fear than we are in acts of love, compassion, generosity, and acceptance.
There are many ways out of our negativity brain bias. Some of them are as old as Indigenous culture itself: positive thinking, speech, actions, and feelings; mindfulness meditation; forget ruminating on the hurtful past and uncertain future; engage in contemplative prayer that is personally loving and extends love to all creatures and sentient being on the planet. Be careful of how you pray. According to Newberg and Waldman, prayer that centers on retribution and punishment from a fearful, critical, “I’m going to get you (and your little dog Toto too)” kind of God activates the neural circuits of fear and negativity in the reptilian brain and blocks access to one’s compassion, love, and acceptance. In this sense negativity and happiness are about one’s ability to control their mind.
So, how negative are tribal communities? I’ll leave that one for each of you to decide. I would suggest by asking yourself this same question on a personal level and then enlarge it to include your family, friends, and community members (and maybe the tea party too. Oops. Another negative from me).
In my work and research on Indigenous Peoples, mindfulness, neurodecolonization, and health, I have “argued” (another negative word) that tribal communities are very likely more unhappy than other communities due to their experiences with the various oppressions inherent in colonialism. I have used health statistics such as the amount of depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and life expectancy as measures of negativity and happiness among Indigenous Peoples, which suggest that we have much higher rates of negativity than happiness. However, I truly do not know how unhappy or happy our communities are.
Several happiness and negativity surveys have been conducted throughout the world, but I cannot find any that tell us much about our tribal communities. In response to the absence of these data, I think it is time for each of our communities to conduct our own surveys on these two traits. With respect to happiness, I believe it is important to focus on what makes one happy, what is the level of our happiness, how often are we happy, and what can we do to sustain our happiness?
In closing, the Buddha once said “Let your love flow outward through the universe, to its height, its depth, its broad extent, a limitless love, without hatred or enmity. Then as you stand or walk, sit or lie down, as long as you are awake, strive for this with a one-pointed mind; Your life will bring heaven to earth (from Sutta Nipata)
Sunday, October 23, 2011
In this column I share a personal story about my first trip to a Sun Dance ceremony that was held on Fort Berthold in the summer of 1991 (twenty years ago). I provide a sampling of how the mind and brain were involved in this experience.
June 3, 1991
I awoke this morning to the sounds of rain covers rhythmically slapping the front of my tent. North Dakota is nearly always windy; and when you’re camped on top of a large clay Butte for several days of ceremony, the winds continually remind you that you have entered their world of movement, violence, and calm.
Underneath me the earth is hard and uneven. It has not had a drink in a long time. I open my eyes and my brain waves begin climbing towards a low Beta state as I become conscious of my surroundings. I adjust my body position slightly in my sleeping bag and feel several small pointed rocks imprinting my body, despite the generous thick carpet of buffalo grass underneath the tent. All night my brain rested in a calm theta sleep and I dreamed of the wind. I stare at the side of the tent and watch as the light from the sun grows brighter and brighter. In perfect sync with the brightness of the sun, my brain’s visual cortex, my occipital lobe located in the back of my brain, activates with a harmonic electrical response. It’s as if my brain and the rising Sun have become one.
Outside seagulls dive bomb into the camp at first light and begin fighting over the sacred garbage and used pampers on the ground. I lift my arm out of my sleeping bag and look at my Timex Ironman sports wrist watch. It’s 5:30 a.m. Time to run or meditate.
June 1, 1991
I left Madison, Wisconsin at 3:09 p.m. on Saturday. My three youngest sons, Michael Jr., Peter, and Matthew, and I are going to the Sun Dance that is being held on a Butte overlooking the Missouri river on our reservation, just outside of New Town, North Dakota. My oldest son, Jason, my Adventurer, did not come this time and is hanging with his friend Ethan. Maybe next time.
I have never been to this ceremony and do not know what to expect or if I am prepared for what’s coming. As I experience both excitement and fear, regions in my brain’s deep limbic system activate and then calm. As we drive west on Interstate highway 94 from Madison, the loud, constant vibrating, clunking sounds from somewhere underneath our 1985 mini-van unnerves my sons and me. I experience bouts of anxiety knowing we could breakdown long before we reach our destination.
As we rattle along, Peter, asks, “Do you think we’ll make it Dad?” Matt, my Philosopher, looks up quickly from his theories of human nature book to gauge the expression on my face as I respond. Michael, my Warrior, quickly intervenes in the conversation to avoid having it get out control. He responds by saying, “Man, Peter. You worry too much. Dad’s got it under control!” I smile and look at Peter and say, “No Buddy. We’ll make it. We’re doing something holy.”
He smiles and looks away. Still, after having paid a few hundred bucks to the Firestone automotive shop, earlier that day, to get us road worthy for this trip I am hoping that all will go well.
The sounds of vibration are soon overridden by the myriad of questions from the boys about the Sun Dance, the reservation, our relatives, and where a good place will be to take our first break. Our active conversation has boosted our brain waves to a mid-high Beta range as we listen and respond energetically to all that is being said. We have a couple of loaves of sliced white bread, two packages of the good kind of baloney, a couple boxes of ding dongs, a big bag of barbeque chips, two six-packs generic soda, a gallon of water, and a thermos of coffee: road food fit for a Chief!
Our first break comes not long after the boys finish their first can of soda. I pull over and get out and stretch as they hustle out of the van into the restroom to flush their small, soda-pop sugar coated kidneys. As we drive off I notice how the dome of the sky, the green trees and grasses, and the interspersed browns in the toiled earth shimmer beautifully in the setting sun.
At 7:00 p.m. we cross the line between Wisconsin and Minnesota which brings cheers from the boys who excitedly look to see if they can determine any subtle differences in the landscape.
After a stop in Rogers, Minnesota, about 40 miles north of Minneapolis, we cruise nonstop into Fargo, arriving at 11:30 p.m. The boys are sleeping and I glance at them and smile, wondering what they may be dreaming about. I watch several cars speed by us as we pass through Fargo; I wonder if any of these folks are headed to our Sun Dance destination.
Midway between Fargo and Bismarck I am drawn from the darkness of the road to the flashes of lightning in the dark heavy clouds in front of us. I’ve always loved lightning at night. One of my nieces, when she was a little girl, used to tell me that the lightening was caused by God lighting matches in heaven. I would tell her that, “God is too old to mess around with matches. I think it’s probably some naughty Angel kids trying to start a fire. When they play with matches they pee in their beds up in heaven.” With a puzzled but serious look on her face she would ask, “is that where rain comes from?”
June 2, 1991
Nearly three hours later we arrive in Bismarck. It’s early Sunday morning. I exit onto highway 83 north towards home. The shift in speed wakes Peter, my Sensitive one. He climbs upfront and asks where we are. "Buckle your seatbelt,” I tell him. “Did you have good dreams?” “I was dreaming about being chased by bees,” he replies. It’s time for gas and I turn into a station to fill up, noticing that the sounds of our van’s bumble-bee vibrations are much quieter.
We drive off from the station; another eighty or ninety more miles till White Shield. Peter remains awake watching the road before us. We begin a conversation about the night and the creatures that depend on the dark for life. He tells me about bats, nighthawks, skunks, and deer and their preference and suitability for darkness. I listen intently to his gentle, well-informed descriptions.
All of a sudden our headlights reflect two shining eyes in front of us, at about the height of the windows of our van. Peter sees them first and says, “watch out Dad!” I’m already slowing down, “I see them.” We slow into a calm, quiet rolling stop and stare at the deer as she walks onto the road. She moves to the middle of the highway and pauses. Although, our encounter lasts only seconds we take in the shape of her large beautiful ears as they shift back and forth, listening, trying to determine what or whom is behind the bright, blinding light on her right side. She faces us for a moment and then gracefully turns her long beautiful neck and body away from us and walks elegantly back down into the ditch.
At 3:35 a.m. we turn off highway 83 and head west on highway 23, the old Lewis and Clark trail road. We are about 30 miles from home. At 4:07 a.m. we cross the line that separates the State of North Dakota from our reservation and turn right onto the dusty gravel road going north to my mom and dad’s place, which is about a mile away from the paved highway. There are several cars in the yard, no dogs barking, and no lights on in the yard or the house.
I pull over the car, park, and turn off the motor. I get out and walk up to the door and turn the doorknob, which is locked. I turn around and return to the car, deciding not to disturb whoever is home. I tell Peter that we will sleep in the car for a few hours and then head inside when it gets light outside. We settle back and I drift between awareness and sleep as Peter pulls guard duty.
June 3, 1991
I sit up in my sleeping bag and zip it open as I listen to the seagulls crying and the rain covers gently tapping outside. The boys are asleep. I can feel the heat of the summer morning building as I slip on my running shoes, tee shirt, and shorts. I brush the bits of grass out of my hair and put it in a ponytail. I fold my red bandana into a headband and wrap it on. I set the timer on my watch and zip open the front of the tent and step out. I stretch lightly and begin running to the North East, the semi-cardinal direction of the winds and all life in the air. As I pick up speed my body relaxes into my run; the wind greets me. I begin my prayer: “Winds be with me. Carry me. Protect me. Winds bless us all.” My right temporal brain lobe (the God spot in my brain) begins to activate.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com
Mindful greetings friends and relatives,
In this entry I share a short personal narrative called, “Brain Spirits,” that I wrote some time ago that features some fiction and real life experiences. I’ve added material that shows how the mind and brain are involved in the story. I hope you enjoy it.
As a teenager I often felt compelling urges to isolate myself so I could deeply contemplate the world, the cosmos, and the varied challenges that life and death presented before me. My meditation of choice was a journey through the rolling hills, lonely buttes, and lush valleys in our part of the reservation. In seeking my place of solitude and insight, I would mindfully move through these landscapes, sitting down from time to time, immersing myself in the sounds, smells, and sights to find an acceptable pitch of spiritual resonation.
As I soaked in the sensations of each place, I imagined who or what had been there before me or what or who was there now, that I was not aware of. I closed my eyes and allowed the sun and wind to touch my face. My mind and body relaxed, enjoying these sensations, and my reward-seeking dopamine (brain neurotransmitter) levels began a steady unimpeded rise. The right side of my brain, the creative side, opened up and my imagination became a conduit for communicating with those spirits that had passed this way long, long ago. Entelechy (perfect realization), however, remained elusive.
On one particular calm summer morning, feeling the call of the wild, I packed for a journey. My pilgrimage was no doubt driven by the late night conversations that I had had with my mother about the direction of my life, the meaning of God, the force of the Devil, and good and evil; nothing too heavy. My mother is such a serene, philosophical spirit that harbors gentle doctrines of truth that she imparts with the love and generosity of a warm, summer rain. Her placid dogma, however, can be overridden by her intuitive intelligence and cognitive flexibility when she is offered meaningful insights.
Following our long talk that evening I went to bed, my brain circuits noisy with the aftermath of our conversation. Through the open window near my bed a gentle breeze entered, bringing the sweet, earthy scent of an approaching summer rainstorm. As I listened to its low rumbles and watched the accompanying flashes of lighting far off in the distance, I begin to feel warm and drowsy. My brain waves soon began descending from the high beta waves I was using to converse with my mother, to a lower relaxed alpha, then to a very relaxed, calm theta, and finally into a deep, cosmic, no dreaming delta sleep.
I was suddenly awakened by a loud crash of thunder. The rain was falling heavy and I could hear the crack of the water as it fell from the roof onto the hard, black earth. The lightning flashed constantly. In my sleepy, dreamy theta state I saw the saintly spirit that visited our house during those nightly, crashing and flashing summer thunderstorms. She floated through the house sprinkling holy water in each room, stopping to whisper a prayer, before moving on.
I awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee brewing and the gentle murmurs of my mom and dad visiting about the day that lay before them. At daybreak my three youngest brothers and sister were still in bed, leaving me the first servings of a breakfast of fried potatoes, deer meat, toast, and canned USDA orange juice. If I ate too much of this feast my little sibs would be forced to savor the taste of hot USDA cornmeal mush with powdered milk, sweetened with white commodity corn syrup; I paced myself taking only a single serving.
As my mother moved away from the stove and sat down at the table to butter more toast, I saw the first streaks of white in her thick, wavy, coal-black hair that was tightly held together underneath a white doo rag style cotton diaper that she wore on her head. Without looking at me she asked me how I slept and if I remembered to say my prayers before going to bed. Between bites and drinks I answered “good” and “yes.” Remembering my dream I said, “Mom. I dreamed about that spirit lady again last night when it was storming out. I could see her moving around the house each time there was a flash of lightning. Before she could respond, my right temporal brain lobe (the God spot in the brain) mildly seizured and found myself sitting on a high hill, at night, watching as lightening cast jagged spears into the horizon and the thunders rumbled toward me from the southwest. I could smell the fragrances of sage, purple cone flower, little blue stem grass, and earth as I sat in my silent world. As my parietal brain lobe quieted down the separation between the plants and I faded. I became the flowers, the stems, the leaves, and fragrances. As I looked about I felt the warm night winds suddenly replaced by a cool airstream as the storm moved closer. A bright flash of lightening suddenly transported me from this place back to the breakfast table.
My Dad looked at me, quietly sipping his coffee; his brain’s mirror neurons were well aware of what had gone on in my mind and that I had visited this place. My mom didn’t notice and continued talking: “it’s good you prayed last night; maybe your prayers helped bring that spirit lady here to help watch over us.” My dad smiled ever so slightly, knowing she was the secret spirit lady. Something caught his hunter’s eye and he looked away from us out the window. My mirror neurons picked up on his shift in emotion and body tension. I followed his gaze just in time to see a large white dog cautiously trotting across the road in front of our house carrying a box of USDA commodity powered milk. My mother who was also watching said, “Now, there’s a good mom; taking extra milk to her babies.” My dad relaxed his gaze, sipped his coffee, and then replied, “Yeah, and it looks like she shops at all the right places.”
The dog slowed and stopped. Looking to the side it suddenly loped over the road out of sight. Moments later car lights appeared, speeding toward our house. It was my older brother coming home after a long night out. We watched as he braked hard and slid in the graveled driveway, creating his own little pig pen cloud of dust. In silence we wondered if he was drunk and incoherently obnoxious or half-shot and full of drunkard jokes.
My mom stood up and tensed like a mother lion watching a cape buffalo. She looked out the window at him for any sign of stumble or weakness. He smoothly exited his car, closed the door, looked up and saw her. He made a funny face, waved and smiled, and then walked up to the front door. Her body relaxed and she smiled saying, “He’s sober. I think.”
As he sat down at the table my mother poured him a cup of coffee and fixed him a plate of food and then asked him where he had been. Before he could answer, she said, “I suppose you were out drinking last night.” She waited for his answer; again watching for any signs of weakness or stumble.
A trickle of blood ran out of the deer meat as my brother cut into it. “I was with Willie and Sam,” he answered. “We were down by the river last night, just talking; they were drinking. I wasn’t. I told them that I quit. I’m giving it up; at least the hard stuff,” he laughed. “Both of them say they’re going to enlist in the army and go to Vietnam. Neither want go to college so they’re pretty sure they’re going to get drafted.”
Now my dad tenses. My mother stares at my brother watching him salt his food. With a faraway look she answers saying, “I hope they don’t go. They’re both their mother’s oldest children. The first born are always the hardest for a mother to let go. They’re the ones that open the way for the other brothers and sisters to come from the spirit world to this world.”
Upon hearing the word spirit, my brother suddenly looked up and said, “Mom. As I was driving up to the house just now I saw a white figure crossing the road. I saw its glowing eyes but couldn’t make out its shape. I thought it was a deer but as I got closer it disappeared. I think it was a spirit.” By now my little sister and three little brothers had entered the room, eyes open wide saying, “We could hear you talking about spirits.” My mom smiled as they sat down at the table. My dad, listening to all of the commotion, took his last drink of coffee, set down his cup, and stood up. He walked to the front door and grabbed his car keys and leather work gloves that were sitting on the TV. As he walked out the door he said, “I’m going to work before you ghost busters have me seeing spirits.”
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neurosci-ence and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mindful greetings, my relatives, my name is Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, Sr. I am an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara nations and a professor in the department of social work at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. I am also the director of graduate studies in our department. On my academic side I have a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of North Dakota; a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and a Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I was trained in quantitative research methods and have focused on the health of Native peoples for my entire academic career. I am presently living on the territory of the Wiyot peoples in northern California, so I want to respectfully acknowledge them and the fact that I am visitor on their homelands.
I have been invited by the MHA Times to contribute a column that spotlights my academic interests, teaching, writing, experiences, and research. I will be submitting this column every two weeks and I will occasionally have guest columnists. Since this is my introductory column it is longer than the ones I will write in the future. The topics I plan to focus on include health, Mind Body Medicine (MBM), mindfulness, neuroscience, social work, and nutrition. Occasionally, using the lens of neuroscience, I will discuss my views on subjects such as religion, war, politics, oppression, trauma, God, education, music, and contact sports (like boxing, mixed martial arts, and football). I am especially excited to share the research that describes what happens to our brains during and following different experiences (some of it good and some of it not so good). I will also share what I know is being done to help improve the function of the brain. I am hoping the information that I share in my column will be helpful on a practical level. Moreover, I hope it will inspire two things: (1) the implementation of a Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara mind/brain policy to protect and enhance the minds and brains of our people for the purposes of greater well being, creativity and intelligence; and (2) the formal implementation of mindfulness practices in our education, health, and social service systems.
In this piece I want to introduce myself and talk a bit about my interest in Mind Body Medicine, especially how “mindfulness” fits into what is known as “Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). I define these two topics later in this column. I would love to hear from readers about what you are getting out of my column and other topics that you want me cover. You can either contact me through letters to the MHA Times, friend me on Facebook, or email me at email@example.com.
To begin with, I was raised in White Shield and lived there for most of my early to middle teen years, although I have always made time to come home for regular visits with family and friends. I return once or twice a year, generally during the summer months, although I do come home in January for my mother’s birthday. Like many others who no longer reside at home, I keep up with what is going on through Facebook, online newspapers, various tribal webpages, email, and telephone calls with family and friends.
My parents are Magdalene (Young Bird) Yellow Bird and Willard Yellow Bird, Sr., (deceased). My grandparents on my mother’s side are Benjamin Young Bird and Jessie (Everett) Young Bird (both deceased); on my father’s side are Charles Yellow Bird and Nellie (Red Fox) Yellow Bird (both deceased). I have 15 siblings (four sisters and ten brothers) and I am right smack in the middle of the birth order. I have loads of nephews and nieces and a growing number of grandkids, and many, many Arikara and Hidatsa relatives. I have four grown sons from my first marriage: Jason, Michael Jr., Peter, and Matthew; and two daughters from my second: Arundhati (4 ½ years) and Solana (2 ½ years). My partner is Erin C. Stanley. She is a member of the Quinault nation in Washington State and has a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Washington, but is mostly, by choice, a stay-at-home mom.
My scholarly and community work centers on helping folks understand the connections between the mind and brain and mindfulness (meditation) practices, and how mindfulness can be used to heal mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual traumas, addictions, and disease. I write on this topic, do presentations, and have an active research agenda. I have taught undergraduate and graduate social work and mindfulness classes at my present university. As far my personal health life is concerned, I am a born-again Indigenous person, which means I eat healthy meals, with mostly whole, organic foods, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, whole raw nuts, and I take probiotics and other key supplements. I refrain from sugar, as well as gluten and dairy, and have a low or no intake of meat; for weeks (sometimes months) at a time I practice a vegan lifestyle. My family also eats this way and we maintain an active lifestyle, swimming, hiking, walking, and playing outside.
Like our ancestors, I strongly endorse the detoxification of the mind, body, and spirit by doing ten day or two week water-only fasts at least twice a year. I practice yoga, tai chi, and walk and run and do weight-bearing exercises every day. I don’t smoke or abuse alcohol. I am certified as an advanced level practitioner of meridian tapping (or what is called emotional freedom technique) and have been practicing mindfulness meditation since the mid 1970s when I was in college. Although our family uses mainstream medicine, we use it sparely and wisely, and it often takes a backseat to our use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I have many stories about how some main- stream doctors have mindlessly prescribed drugs to my family members when not needed, and how we successfully addressed the condition using complementary medicines and therapies.
At home we engage in formal daily family mindfulness sitting meditation practice. Erin and I sit nearly every morning with our daughters. Our oldest girl, Arundhati (4 ½ years), is becoming very accomplished at meditation and can sit, quietly with her eyes closed, in a semi-lotus position, on her cushion, without distraction, for up to 30 minutes at a time. She has been practicing since she was about a year and a half old. Her little sister Solana, on the other hand, tries but at 2 ½ years she is still a work in progress. We embrace mindfulness meditation for our children and have normalized it as something we regularly do in our home since the research shows it will help them build important neural connections and functions in their developing brains. There is an excellent neuroscience literature that discusses how (helpful) brain circuits are engaged and (unhelpful) ones are quieted down when one practices mindfulness. This literature is referred to as the neurobiology of mindfulness, which roughly means, “This is your brain on mindfulness.” I’ve posted pictures of my daughters meditating on my Facebook and use their experience to discuss why mindfulness practices are important for children.
So what is mindfulness? In short, mindfulness refers to being deeply aware of what is happening from moment to moment outside and inside us without judging or attaching to the content, feelings, and emotions that arise. It refers to living deeply and richly in the present moment and not responding to life in a distracted and mechanical manner. For instance, when we mindfully eat we slow down the pace of our eating and become deeply aware of the taste, texture, smell, and hot or cold sensation of the food, and when we are full. When we mindlessly eat we miss most of these rich experiences with our food; many times we do not taste it and often end up overeating or maybe eating something that is bad for us. After mindless eating we often end up not feeling well. Mindless eating is one of the major reasons why there has been such meteoric rise in food-related obesity, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Developing mindfulness involves systematic training and practice and is a process that takes place over time. However, it is a journey that is well worth it because when we enter into states of deep mindfulness and awareness our world, experiences, and lives become much richer, less fearful and angry, more vivid, creative, peaceful, and healed. As I’ve said, much of what I do involves teaching about the scientific evidence-base of how and why mindfulness works and its connection to the mind and brain. What is most exciting about this work is that research shows that particular mindfulness practices can significantly help improve a person’s health and well being by reshaping important neural circuits in the brain.
Mindfulness is incorporated under Mind Body Medicine which focuses on the connections between the mind, brain, and body, and behavior, and how this knowledge is used to engage the mind to improve physical functioning and well being. It is important to remember that Mind Body Medicine is a “complementary medicine" that is used together with conventional medicine. For instance, mindfulness meditation (a mind body medicine approach) is being successfully used to help individuals recover from (radiation and chemotherapy) cancer treatments. A number of studies show that mindfulness meditation can greatly reduce the side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue.
The rise in the use of complementary medicine is almost all patient-driven; and for good reason. Many people choose complementary medicine because it has fewer or no side effects, is safe, and it works. While conventional medicine can be very effective in some circumstances, in others it can be debilitating, dangerous, and even cause death. Conventional medicine is largely about treating symptoms and diseases with drugs, radiation, and surgery. It has little to do with preventing disease, addressing the emotional and spiritual needs of the person, or using mind body approaches for healing. Don’t expect your conventional physician to know much about complementary medicine or take it too seriously. Most, but not all, have been narrowly trained and have very cozy relationships with the pharmaceutical industry, which would prefer we buy and use their drugs instead of our own healing powers to attain better health.
The number of recalls, safety alerts, warnings, and side effects of many of today’s drugs is disturbing to say the least. In fact, in the book, Our Daily Meds, written by Melody Peterson, one study found that 100,000 people die each year from the side effects of the prescription drugs they take. Peterson says that this doesn’t take into account the number of folks who get deathly ill or suffer a disability, or die because the doctor made a mistake and prescribed the wrong drug, or the pharmacist made a mistake in filling the prescription, or the patient accidentally took too much.
Mind Body Medicine (MBM) is one of five systems in what is known as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is recognized and supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It is a rapidly expanding field that includes the use of “non-conventional” approaches to aid in the promotion of health and healing of individuals, families, groups, and communities. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine lists five major CAM systems: Whole Medical Systems (Indigenous/ Native American, naturopathic, homeopathic, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine); Mind-Body Medicine (mindfulness, transcendental medita- tion, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, deep breathing, and the relaxation response); Biologically Based Practices (the use of herbs, foods, and supplements); Manipulative and Body-Based practices (osteopathic medicine, physical therapy, and yoga); and Energy Medicine (qi gong, emotional freedom technique, therapeutic touch, and the use of electromagnetic fields).
Over the past year I’ve been following the building and completion of the new Three Affiliated Tribes Elbowoods Memorial Health Center. It is impressive and I am grateful to all of those individuals and groups, past and present, who dedicated their energies to making this Center a reality. I believe it would be a wonderful tribute to our ancestors that resided in, and before the time of Elbowoods, to include a Complementary and Alternative Medicine department in the new health center. The Center could develop collaborations with the Fort Berthold Community College and create an academic curriculum for individuals that want to learn how to use or practice one of the many forms of complementary medicine.
When I reflect back on what our ancestors knew about health and healing, I am reminded that they knew much more about alternative therapies then we do today – because they lived them and they were not “alternative,” they were mainstream. Some of the strongest medicines they had included (natural) biologically, mind body, and energy-based approaches.
The Buddha, who was Indigenous, once said that, “What you think you become.” That said, when we deliberately train ourselves to mindfully engage our brains in positive words, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, incredible possibilities perennially bloom in our lives.