Welcome to Joy Lab!: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach.
Henry: Hello, I'm Henry Emmons.
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. So welcome to Joy Lab, where we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on our elements of joy, the positive inner states and emotions that become the building blocks for a joyful life. The element we're digging into in this episode is gratitude- again.
And we're digging into that second aspect of accepting what is. So if you haven't listened to the last episode, number 30, you may want to go [00:01:00] back there before this one, to fully make sense of what we're playing with here. So last episode, we talked about seeing what is. And I think the order is really important here.
Accepting what is, comes after seeing what is. I'm just hearing that common saying in my head right now, "It is what it is." And I'll respond, Well, what is it, ? We don't have to analyze everything for sure, but for the big stuff, I think if we don't see what it is, if we just have blind acceptance, then we're really just ignoring it and giving up our power because we can't learn anything from it.
We can't apply gratitude. Um, and we can't take wise action in response to it. That's what we're digging into. Uh, with the last episode, we got into some to help us see more clearly, to take in that bigger picture. And now it's about acceptance. Accepting the rough stuff, the is what it is, stuff and the wonderful stuff.
[00:02:00] So interestingly, I think that piece of accepting the good is often overlooked. Or harder sometimes, and we'll get into that as well. It seems like that should be the easy part though, but I guess some things can be difficult all the way around, right, henry?!
Henry: Yeah. You know, when I, thinking back to when I first started, uh, learning about and practicing mindfulness, the, this idea of acceptance felt pretty unfamiliar to me, actually. It's not that I hadn't heard of it, but I don't think I'd ever really learned to put it into practice. And I found it surprisingly hard to do.
I, I still find it to do, frankly. And I think that's true for most of us. There's a paradox here that I think makes it hard, just hard to get our minds around. So we have this idea that if we accept things as they are, that we're basically giving [00:03:00] up. We're no longer trying to change things for the better.
It's like we stop fighting. The paradox is that when we do accept things as they are, we actually have a better chance of changing them. It's like it gives us an honest platform to work from. If we choose to fight, we can do so. We can be clear-eyed about what we're dealing with and what needs to be done.
We might also choose to let things be as they are and let ourselves feel better about them. It's really just when we're unwilling to accept things as they actually are, that we get ourselves into trouble. We all bad things happen to us. Of course. You know, like when Covid started we had to [00:04:00] cancel trips and get togethers and you know, everything essentially.
Or you know, if the economy tanks and we see our savings just evaporate or you know somebody, we love is diagnosed with a life changing illness. None of us wants this stuff. And the bad feelings pop up right away. Frustration, anger, fear. But it's our resistance to accepting these situations that makes these uncomfortable feelings a lot stronger and longer lasting. Acceptance, ironically, allows those feelings to flow through us, and it frees up our attention for whatever we can do about it.
Aimee: Yeah, I think we can all relate to it being [00:05:00] hard to accept bad things, certainly. Um, and that's an ongoing practice. I think what can be harder to wrap our heads around, as I noted earlier, is why we resist letting the good things in. And I really think we all do that too, but it just doesn't make the same sense.
Right. What's the threat here?
Henry: Yeah, right. Well here's, here are the ways I think that this happens. And I agree with you, Aimee, that this does happen. So one way is, really what we just talked about, and it is the word that's often used for this is aversion. So when we practice or experience aversion, it's when we're so full of resistance, and we are so geared towards seeing what's wrong with our lives that we unconsciously push away everything, even the good stuff.
Henry: Maybe cause [00:06:00] we're mad about it. The second pattern is known as grasping. So if we focus on what we don't have or if we feel this kind of vague sense of emptiness inside, then there's no amount of good things that are gonna make us feel grateful. Cause all that we can see is that we don't have enough. And so instead we just keep striving to get more, to try to fill ourselves up.
And then the third way that we limit ourselves here is probably not as intense as the others, but I think it might be even more common. And it's often called mindlessness. But I think you can think of it as just not being able to see the good stuff. It's as if you just aren't tuned into that frequency, so the goodness is there, you just aren't aware that it is there. [00:07:00] Now, some of you may recognize these three patterns. Because in mindfulness teaching, these are often talked about as primary sources of suffering. And they're considered to be universal. You know, all of us do these things. But we do have a many of us at least, to gravitate more toward one pattern than another, kind of our favorite flavor, if you will.
And I think you can, you can look at these as obstacles because they are blocking our access to all of the joyful states, including gratitude.
Aimee: I think we, uh, kind of got into mindlessness last episode and had some great strategies to consider to help working with that. We'll get into it a little bit today too. And aversion and grasping.... hmm... I can relate to those! And we'll, we'll get started actually on some future episodes for those because they [00:08:00] deserve some solid discussion time.
In the meantime, I think a related tendency to aversion and something that stands in the way of gratitude is something called cheraphobia, which is essentially the fear of being happy.
This idea that if we soak in the good stuff, if we let our guards down and be happy, then it will lead to something terrible. It's not a diagnosis, but it's considered a kind of anxiety. And it may sound extreme cause it has that "phobia" name, but I think many of us can find ourselves in that space. I'll throw out some common thoughts or expressions that relate here:
"Nothing good ever lasts." "This is too good to be true." "I just know something bad is gonna happen." "The other shoe is gonna drop."
Henry: Cheraphobia, huh?!, Where, where do you come up with these things?
Aimee: I have so many, so many [00:09:00] things running my mind.
Henry: There there is a word for everything. So I, I have a simple way of thinking about this. On the surface, it makes no sense to limit our own happiness, and I think that this is just an innocent, unconscious attempt to protect ourselves. It's innocent because none of us set out to make our lives less happy.
You know, whatever we're doing, I think it's the best we can do at that moment in time. And I think it's unconscious because, you know, we really don't realize that we're limiting our access to good things. If we were aware of it, maybe we'd make a different choice. That's actually a really good reason to take up some kind of awareness practice, by the way, like we do in Joy Lab because it gives us the tools to make healthier choices.[00:10:00] So I think it begins as a way to protect ourselves. You know, maybe at some earlier time in one's life, there was a like really bad thing that happened after something really good happened and that kind of trauma just stays with us if we aren't able to consciously work it through for whatever reason.
But it's not only trauma that can cause this. Many people believe that if they don't let themselves feel too good, there's less to lose. You know, it's like what goes up must come down, right? So if you don't let yourself go up too high, you won't risk falling down too far. But I think that what might start out to be self protective, maybe years earlier, might not be [00:11:00] protective anymore. And maybe it's time to try something different.
Aimee: I'm gonna hand the microphone to my surveillance self, which will say, "The key to happiness is low expectations." Um, then I'll take the mic back. Um, but a lot of clinicians and researchers note that this fear or aversion to happiness often stems from a childhood experience, um, where something good was immediately followed by something bad, sort of like you're referring to with trauma, Henry, um, or childhood trauma. So there has to be a bit of repetition here to create this pattern in the brain of this pleasure-pain cycle. Or it could be, uh, an experience that was pretty big. Something that sent the message immediately into the brain with a big shove.
So for me, it was one experience that really created this fear cycle for me. So I will share my cheraphobia here. Um, God, I love the name. [00:12:00] So, it helps. Uh, I have this distinct memory of feeling really happy in the early part of my senior year of high school. Like, swagger happy. I felt like I was getting a hang of this life thing. My adolescent brain was super confident in that moment, which felt really good cause that wasn't the case prior so much.
I even remember saying to my boyfriend in late fall, Do you ever feel like stuff is so good that something is going to happen soon to destroy it all? And I asked him in sort of this half joking sort of way, cause everything felt so good. So I can't help but think there was sort of a bit of premonition there or some of this cheraphobia in me already. And anyway, that first week of January, just a short time after I had that thought and conversation, but that feeling, you know, as I was soaking in some happiness, [00:13:00] my dad went missing and then was later found dead. And so I have this really poignant experience of joy that was smacked by confusion and tragedy. These really intense, conflicting emotions, and it sent that relationship deep into my cells.
It sent this message to my adolescent brain that joy leads to tragedy. So maybe you listening can relate at some level; something good that you sort of take a moment to soak in, and then you get smacked by bad news. We've all had that, I think. These conflicting moments that send a big message to your body and to your mind.
And I think the good news here is that even though this feels so solid, so concrete, this relationship, it can almost always be rewired. There are some therapies that seem to be more helpful to do this rewiring like, [00:14:00] uh, insight oriented therapy, uh, C B T. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is what we have embedded in the Joy Lab program.
Uh, and neurofeedback tools, all of which I have used in some capacity and certainly recommend.
Henry: Well, I really like how you described that experience as going deep into your cells.
Henry: I think that's exactly what trauma experts say is happening, quite literally. Painful thoughts, fearful thoughts, protective thoughts, if they get repeated often enough, they become cellular. Like the entire body becomes sort of a storage depot for past pain. And you know, we can carry on for a long time, not even knowing it's there and then suddenly something happens that rekindles it.
We've talked before about [00:15:00] neuroplasticity, which basically means that we create mental pathways through repetition. I, I think of the brain as kind of a big communication network, and I'm pretty concrete, so I, I see a picture in my head that looks kind of like a roadmap. There are these really busy cities that create these transportation hubs, let's say, where roads are going out in every direction to connect with other really important cities. But instead of cars and trucks traveling on these roadways, the brain has these information highways. So all of these relay centers are talking to each other, communicating, by using chemical and electrical information, kind of messengers if you will.
Now one of the biggest and most important of these hubs, [00:16:00] and you know, it's important cause of its location, it's like being right in center of a country. And it's right in the middle of the brain kind of sending its projections out all over to other areas of the brain, and it's called the amygdala.
And when it gets activated, It gets louder than every other brain center. It yells "emergency" when you feel threatened. Whether the emergency is real or not actually doesn't matter so much to it, there's no way you can ignore it. It takes over the whole system, until you do something to alleviate that sense of threat. And that's often referred to as an amygdala hijack.
Henry: I think your brain got hijacked as a teen, Aimee. You know, it's not true that joy leads to tragedy, [00:17:00] but again, truth doesn't matter to the amygdala. Only survival matters, and that's why we have to do something to become more conscious, so that we can reign in these loud voices that tell us the world is this awful threatening place.
Of course, it can be threatening and when it is, you bet we want that alarm system to work. And we want to be able to take action immediately. But the truth is, most of the time the world is not threatening. And we want this system to stand down so that we can see and accept all the good stuff that is out there too.
Aimee: I like that hijack language actually. it reminds me that something external came in and just messed up some stuff and took the wheel. And that we can kick that [00:18:00] hijacker out and recalibrate in so many helpful ways. I love that. So let's talk more about that. How can we move past this cheraphobia, those aversions, um, that grasping that might be standing in our way,
and really accept what is, accept gratitude and joy? And I will answer my question first and then you go, Henry. So I think first, um, we should all have access to a mental health therapist. And I know that's not the case, cause I did not when I needed it. I think that's a public health crisis, um, which is another episode.
But, um, if you do have access working with someone familiar with this kind of anxiety, around happiness can really be helpful. Along with that, um, programs like Joy Lab that integrate cognitive behavioral therapy can be really helpful. And what we talk about here on the podcast is well, we're literally working to rewire our [00:19:00] brains for more joy, and when we do that, we let those old wirings, the ones that may not be serving us anymore, take a backseat to some new ones.
Now I'm getting like images of like hijacker coming in and hot wiring my brain for a moment too, right? So there's so many great metaphors here, which leads me actually to some cool technologies, uh, like cognitive control training with some realtime fMRI neural feedback. Clunky, um, sentence there, but essentially you get a real time look at these areas of your brain that are lighting up at the moment.
The idea is that you can then, use that visual cue to help you learn how to regulate certain brain regions amidst different activities or, or when you're recalling memories. So there's a lot of interesting research here specific to gratitude actually. For example, working to activate [00:20:00] certain areas of the brain by interpreting a past experience more positively and with gratitude for the experience. And you do it again and again with that neural feedback, sort of training, like that to light up those areas that feel more nourishing. Like doing curls to strengthen your bicep gets stronger and your gratitude grows.
But of course, most of us don't have access to an fMRI machine. Uh, so Henry you know, what are some strategies that don't require a $2 million dollar fMRI machine?
Henry: Don't you love how we look to technology to fix everything?! It's like when we think we need a treadmill desk for about $10,000 when we've got this built in treadmill, that's free. You know, we just need to get up and move around once in a while. So, you know, we've also got a built in biofeedback device. Granted, it's not as cool [00:21:00] as an fMRI machine. And I, I will admit that I find it nice to have technology like this to affirm that what we're doing is actually working.
But it's also nice to have a super portable, free, and effective technology built into our brain. And I think it's there and it's often referred to as the observing mind.
Aimee: Ooh. I first love that we're gonna bring in a free, portable technology here cause I believe we are the original iPods. Badum ching. It's a dad joke, I think. But let's get back to that metaphor quickly of the brain as a series of transportation hubs. I love that, to talk about this observing mind, so you can kind of think of it like the Department of Transportation, you know, it's job is to take a meta perspective, to see the 10,000 foot view and to manage this complex [00:22:00] process of brain communication.
Henry: Right, right. You can think of the observing mind as the big, overarching mind.
It sees what is, without judging it as being good or bad. And the observing mind doesn't change. It's really steady and stable no matter what's going on. Contrast that to our state of mind, which is changing constantly and its job is, really to judge things as good or bad, to get us more of what we want, and protect us from what we don't want.
Henry: Now that is a good and useful tool. The problem is that most of us are completely caught up by our temporary states of mind, and it is no easy task to put the observing mind back in charge. That's why we spend a [00:23:00] lot of time on that in the Joy Lab program. But here's a really simple way to use this observing mind to let in more gratitude. So when you have a chance, just turn your attention your hands. You don't have to do a thing with them. Just observe them with your mind and try to notice one of two qualities: Do your hands feel tense, kind of clenched up, or do they feel relaxed and kind of open.
And then just stay with that, observing your hands for a few moments, doesn't take long. Just keep your hands. Are they tense? Or relaxed? Clenched? Or open. Now again, you don't need to change anything. That's the beauty of this. You just need to notice what is. But often you'll find [00:24:00] that by noticing your hands in this way, they will slowly relax and unclench. So as you continue to do this, see if you can bring to mind one simple thing that you're grateful for. It can be anything.
It doesn't have to be a big deal. Maybe it's a person, a recent event, some food that you like, something about nature, whatever it is, just let it come to mind. At the same time, keep part of your mind, observing your hands. You can do them both at once and then try to notice is there any change as you picture this thing that you're grateful for?
Do your hands open up just a little bit more? You don't have to force anything. Just notice. That little practice [00:25:00] I just described is not exactly a meditation, it's just an exercise in observing, and you can do this in a moment, any time of day, with your eyes open or closed. Really, it doesn't matter.
All it requires is that you bring your attention to your hands. Now open, unclenched hands are also the posture of receiving. So you can create this kind of virtuous cycle of noticing, opening, and receiving more things that make you feel grateful.
Aimee: I love the simplicity of that. Actually, I was lucky enough to study in Dharmsala, India with traditional Tibetan medicine doctors, and they would always say that for both the practitioner and the patient, the people, all of us, our most powerful tools are our hands for healing. There's [00:26:00] so much power there to access.
So we've talked about accepting what is in this episode, and we'll take that one more step next episode into how gratitude can fuel action and brew up more gratitude, that powerful upward spiral that you just noted, Henry. But before we go, I wanna share something uh, Sharon Salzberg wrote about acceptance. She's an awesome mindfulness and acceptance teacher, among other things.
She has some great imagery, I think, on how we can accept what is, amidst the obstacles, particularly thinking of aversion and grasping. Here it is: "Acceptance doesn't mean succumbing to what's going on. When we succumb to a situation, we collapse into it or become immersed in it or possessed by it. Yet, acceptance clearly doesn't mean we struggle against the waves.
Trying to push against the waves or push them out of the way [00:27:00] exhausts us and is futile. We have to use the momentum of each wave on the crossing to help us go along. The crossing of the flood is only accomplished one moment at a time. The art of this accomplishment is the ability to continually begin again.
We set forth, we struggle or get muddled or anxious, we lose our balance, and then realizing it, we begin again. We don't need self recriminations or blame or anger. We need a reawakening of intention and a willingness to recommit to be wholehearted once again.
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