Welcome to Joy Lab!: 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 and welcome to Joy Lab!
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. Here at Joy Lab, we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on building the elements of joy, the positive emotions and inner states that become the building blocks for a joyful life. So the element for this episode is hope... and resilience because we're still working through our Roots of Resilience series, and if you've missed the beginning of this series, you may want to go back to the first part, which is episode 53.
I think going through these episodes in order can be pretty helpful, actually. Of course, if you're just popping in and this is where you feel you need to be now, then listen to your wisdom. Stay here. So we are in our second to last root of resilience, that Henry termed cultivating a good heart and you might be thinking, cultivating a good heart is irrelevant when we're talking about mental health.
It can seem sort of unrelated when so much of our attention with mental health gets stuck in the brain like the problem is up here, so let's focus here. But, often when we really sit with how we're feeling, the symptoms and experiences, uh, or if we look at the science, those things speak to way more than just some wrong levels of amino acids or neurotransmitters bouncing around our brain. We can often feel a lack of connection or meaning, maybe feeling empty or unfulfilled.
And this awareness doesn't dismiss the biological factors that may be at play that we've talked about earlier in this series too. But it opens up the rest of our body and the world around us as opportunities to build resilience and for healing, and I think the heart has a really big role there.
Henry: So do I.
Henry: I made the decision a long time ago, to go into psychiatry, what tipped the scales for me was the sense that, you know, in psychiatry I could go deeper, deal with the whole person, And it would at least be possible to include heart and soul. I was pretty bummed to find out that by the time I got into it, psychiatry had largely given away most of this territory so that we could just focus on the brain and the hard science. Luckily, I actually do find neuroscience and human physiology to be really interesting, but it just was never enough for me. I think that that's what drew me to mindfulness really early in my career and working, learning about it through Jon Kabat-Zinn.
And I remember when I did my training with him, I remember this really clearly, he described the end goal of mindfulness practice was, as he put it, to build a larger container. And what he meant by that was that it's a to dilute the suffering and challenges of life that we all have, into a much larger vessel.
That just made so much sense to me and I, I feel it continues to inspire my work 30 years later. So those of you who have been listening to this series on hope and resilience, you'll probably recall the metaphor of the water cooler. That resilience container that I think we all have within us. And it's got this magic elixir that keeps us afloat, helps us deal with stresses, and something we need to keep filled up.
And we can do that through good self-care, through making healthy lifestyle choices, learning to work with our thoughts and our emotions with more skill. All of those things I believe are incredibly important. And yet, even if you're doing all of that really well, it isn't always enough. Plus it, it's actually a lot of work to be so focused on self-care all of the time.
Aimee: Good point. Yeah.
Henry: So this topic of cultivating a good heart, I think really moves us into that deeper conversation. You know, like Aimee was saying, we human beings are so much more than our brain chemistry or our bodies, or even our thoughts and emotions. We are built for connection. And I believe that what really enlarges that container is our ability to stay open and connect beyond ourselves. So we're going to get into that even, you know, more in the next episode about connecting. But it's, it's really something we try to do throughout Joy Lab. So how do we create these deep, wide, genuine connections? It's through the heart, I think of the heart as the organ of connection. And so to me, what cultivating a good heart means is that it's the way we create more openness. So that it's easy and natural for us to connect to the people and the things that really matter to us.
Aimee: I love that. The organ of connection. Makes me think of, um, the time when I was studying in India. I had this aha moment when a traditional Tibetan medicine doctor explained how we can interpret our sensory running through the heart first and then to the brain.
So vision, taste, touch, smell, hearing; we gather this information through the receptors and then it runs through the heart and then to the brain. This isn't the way conventional or more Western medical systems, you know, have seen it for the last hundred or so years. Uh, the assumption was that we gather sensory information, it goes through the brain first, and then the orders are called out from there. Which is a big pivot because many of our indigenous or traditional healing practices saw the heart's importance in sensory processing and for sure mental health as well.
The heart played a role. And a lot of demons. Demon possession was like a go-to cause for a lot of mental health questions. Which I've been watching a lot of cult as I told Henry documentaries lately. So I'm kind of in on this demonn possession thing. My cult kick coming through here. Um, tangent.
So there are these ancient and really universal, understandings that the heart isn't just a pump that only follows the brain's commands. And the good news, this is part of a growing scientific field, it's often called neuro neurology. Uh, one of the initial findings that really exploded this area of study is that the heart has a complex neural network, often called the heart-brain.
And it turns out that some sensory information does pass through the heart before the brain, just like many of our ancestors believed. And it can influence things like attention, motivation, uh, perceptual sensitivity, emotional processing.
So this work, a lot of this work has opened the door as well to the vagal nerves, the main nerves of our neuro or the, the main nerves of our parasympathetic nervous system, the nervous system associated with the relaxation response. And most of those fibers of the vagal nerves are related to the heart, and they take information from the heart to the brain. So in this case, the heart is telling the brain what to do more often than the brain is telling the heart what to do.
On top of that, in the last 40 years or so, we learned Uh, the produces hormones. Things like atria peptide, which has a role in stress hormones, uh, and possibly motivation and behavior. Uh, the heart produces neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine, and oxytocin, that fame, love hormone that's involved in a lot of bonding activities and cognition.
And the concentrations of oxytocin in the heart are in the same range as the brain. So this heart, brain we have is a real thing. And that language, Henry, organ of connection, is like spot on, I think, given what we're learning about the wisdom of the heart, it really plays a role in our sense of connection, uh, with the world around us and within us as well.
Henry: Hmm. Wow. I love the information passes through the heart first. That's really cool. And you know, it's kind of like it's a filter that gives the brain a different way to process things. And, you know, I bet traditional forms of medicine, they just saw this as a no-brainer, pun intended. They just, they just didn't separate the heart and the mind in their thinking like we do.
And it's so interesting that it was the cardiologists and scientists who work with the heart who really brought out this heart brain connection in Western medicine. And yet, don't we all know this intuitively? I believe that when we are living as we were meant to be, when we feel 100% ourselves, this mind-heart-gut connection cuz it also does involve the gut, that it just happens naturally. There is no real separation. They communicate as one, in real time. Until something happens that blocks this flow of energy and information. And I wonder if these blockages are possibly what the traditional healers thought of as demon posession. Unresolved grief, trauma, being hurt or excluded, feeling isolated or alone. I believe that these blockages occur mostly in the heart, and we can release them by letting go of what we can and allowing ourselves to open up again.
Aimee: I like thinking of those stressors or experiences as kind of blocks in the heart, with the knowledge that they can be released. Blocks, not breaks. We are not broken as we like to say here. Uh, and the science is just moving toward that. Again, those brilliant researchers and practitioners, uh, in neurocardiology have found that our heart-brain exhibits short and long-term memory functions independent of the brain. And those neurons moving from heart to brain, uh, might be important in memory transfer.
And I know it's anecdotal at this point, but there are some fascinating stories of heart transplant recipients demonstrating the lifestyles, personalities, behaviors, fears of their donors after transplant. There's actually been some interesting research with snails I think here. Like the recipient snail adopted a new skill after transplant.
So for anybody's interest. I know. Super cool. I'll put in the show notes for those of you who are really excited about snail research.
Um, but this memory transfer stuff, actually, sorry, just kind of related, but I think the very visceral phenomenon as well of deja vu has something to do with this intrinsic cardiac nervous system of ours, this heart brain. I have no evidence to support this,
Aimee: Intuition. That might be it too.
I just think it's kind of fun to think about maybe our heart-brain, let's take this for a moment, has taken in sensory information, it's processed and stored in such a way that the heart, then, you know, transfers to the brain, that information, where it's reprocessed, giving us this feeling of two experiences. So maybe not just a glitch in the matrix or a hip hiccup in the limbic limbic system as it's sometimes called, but memories from our heart. Okay, sorry. Let's get back on track. Um, so beyond fun to think about. I think this understanding of the heart, gut, brain connection, as you noted, Henry is really comforting.
I think it takes some burden off of the brain. I'm guessing many of us know that thinking our way out of depression or a panic attack, for example, is pretty impossible. Instead, we've got this whole system that wants to help us regain our balance, our resilience, so we can work with our brain and mind and we've got a gut that can be nourished and that can help our mood, we've got energy that can be managed, um, like we talked about in episode 55, and we've got a heart that can be opened through practices we already know and that just have to be reignited. So let's talk about some practices to do this. Henry, you've identified three practices, uh, in some of your books to do this.
They are self-acceptance, loving, kindness, and compassion. So for now, let's describe these three practices. Um, but just focus on one strategy and then when we get into our element of curiosity, two episodes from now, we'll kind of come back, I think, to some of this discussion and we'll offer some more strategies.
And that's because, uh, open heart is a curious heart as well, so that will, yeah. Right. So Henry, can you explain, um, these three practices as you describe them, for cultivating a good heart.
Henry: Sure. You know, each of these is in itself a really big topic and you could literally spend the rest of the rest of your life, really fruitfully, focusing on any one of them.
Aimee: We've got a lot of episodes left. That's Joy Lab
Henry: We're not stopping That
Henry: But you know, that's the beauty of being holistic. Anything that you do to help one part of yourself is also going to help the rest of you. So self-acceptance. I think it might be more important today than it has ever been, because there is so much self-judgment and even outright disliking of oneself .And you know, this is a continuous practice. It's something you can do every day throughout the day because there are so many things that can trigger this belief that we're somehow not good enough, we're not okay. It offers us the opportunity for a continuous mindfulness practice. Cuz you can constantly be attentive to your emotions, to the thoughts that trigger your emotions and to your efforts to release your judgements. So, it strengthens your good open heart that we're aiming for.
Now, anybody who has taken a mindfulness class has probably learned to do the second practice you mentioned Aimee, the a loving kindness meditation. You know, if you were to just do one thing, uh, that is a really powerful way to soften and open your heart, this would be a really great one. And it's something you could do your entire life. It does help to have had some meditation training just so that you can calm and focus your mind.
But, but it's really a heart based. I think it, it actually expands on traditional mindfulness practice by placing your awareness on what is known as your heart center or the energetic heart. And then it just involves a really simple, beautiful thing of, of bringing to mind various people, know, picturing them having their image, then you kind of hold them in your heart and silently offer a blessing of peace, happiness, or wellbeing, or loving kindness. And it makes use of the spiritual truth that whatever you are giving to someone else, you are also receiving for yourself.
Compassion practice, I think, is quite similar to the Loving Kindness practice.
Uh, you focus your awareness on your heart center again and you bring others to mind, just as you did before, sitting there with an open heart. The focus is a little different though cuz it's more on, awareness that, that this other person is also suffering in some way or other. And it, and then you just offer them your sense of compassion, you know, wishing for healing and release from suffering for them. And I think it's a great way of acknowledging that, you know, really we are all in this together. None of us is exempt from hardship or suffering. And it opens us up to a deeper sense of connection with all of humanity.
Aimee: Deep connection with all of humanity. All of humanity. Even people we don't like. We're connected. We're actually gonna talk about those connections in the next episode. So we also have a great series on compassion. It starts in episode 26 and is titled, don't Believe Everything You Think About Yourself.
Ain't that the truth? There's an act of compassion. So head back there. 26 too, if you'd like. For now though, a practice that I think encapsulates all of, these, these three that we've discussed that Henry just noted is from, uh, the chemistry of calm and is called the three kindnesses. We do something like this in the Joy Lab program, so some of you might be familiar with it, uh, but we wanna share it on the podcast as well because it's super easy. It's like a transportable practice that you can do anywhere, which is really the point to cultivate a more open and connected heart anywhere, anytime. Uh, so can you explain this practice, Henry?
Henry: Yeah, it, it's really similar to the compassion practice we just talked about, but the focus is on kindness. I actually think that the, those two things are mirror images of one another. That if you really believe in compassion, then the only authentic response to other people is kindness. So briefly, here is how to do this really beautiful practice. The essence of it is simply to notice acts of kindness when they occur around you and they do happen. Simply noticing it is a great antidote to the negativity or even hostility that we also do see out there.
So there are three different patterns of kindness that we suggest that you look for and notice. The first when you see someone acting kindly to another person. So maybe it's, you know, a mother soothing her child or, or someone just letting a person go ahead of them at a stop sign or waiting in line or something, or, or just someone being nice to a waitstaff, you know, uh, at a restaurant, uh, who's clearly having a rough day.
The next pattern to notice is when someone acts kindly toward you. Again, these can be very small, no big deal. You know, we can call 'em micro kindnesses.
And they are noteworthy even if they aren't big. And just try to notice when someone treats you in any small way with kindness. Does it change your own inner experience? And, and how? Just notice it, don't have to do anything but that. And then finally, the third pattern is to become aware of when you act kindly toward someone else. Now this gets really interesting because as you notice this, you also start to change. And I believe you will find yourself being kind more often, which is a very good thing for the other people in your life, but also a very good thing for you.
Aimee: It is viral, isn't it? I, I love doing this work, these three kindnesses work, Henry, um, and folks, because it always works. You'll always find kindness when you look for it. Just like you said, Henry. It's got a good success rate. So head to the show notes. This is episode 60 for those three patterns of kindness.
We've got those written out for you so you can know exactly what to look for. All right, uh, next episode is the Last of our Roots of Resilience series. And you know, if you'd like to throw a kindness at us, it would be really helpful if you could give us a top rating and review on the platform. Ooh, see how I did that?
You're listening to us. Thank you.
It does really help us. It helps others find us and it spreads some joy. So, um, there's a kind act you could do too. But truly we just are very grateful you're here. So, to close our time today, I wanna share some wisdom from the 14th Dalai Lama. I suppose a pioneer in neurocardiology actually. So here it is:
" This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain. Our own heart is our temple. The philosophy is kindness."
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