A Major Danger to the Brain

A good functioning brain is perhaps the most valuable thing that we can have in our life. Our intelligence, awareness, understanding and general effectiveness in life all depend upon the proper functioning of the brain.

What many people do not realize is that there is a common substance that can affect the brain in a major way — alcohol. I used to think that alcohol just causes liver diseases, such as cirrhosis or cancer. But later, I learned that one of the major consequences of heavy drinking is the gradual damage to the brain.

Brain Shrinkage. Studies have shown that the brains of alcoholics diminish in size. Even those who drink moderately also suffer from such shrinkage, according to the British Medical Journal based on research done by Oxford University and University College London on 550 people for 30 years. MRI images of brains of drinkers and non-drinkers show large empty gaps in brains of alcoholics. Alcohol kills the white cells of the brain.

Damage on Memory. Alcohol consumption, even in moderate amounts, affects the hippocampus, that part of the brain connected with memory. A very serious damage is the Wernicke-Korsakoff Sydrome which results in amnesia, damage to vision and poor muscle coordination. Alcohol affects the neurotransmitters of the nervous system, thus slowing down the communication system through the neurons.

Effect on baby’s brain. Pregnant women who drink alcohol results in what is called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome where the brain of the baby is smaller than normal. According to Mayo Clinic, the physical defects may include small eyes, upturned nose, deformities of limbs and fingers, slow physical growth, vision and hearing problems, small head, heart defects, kidney problems, poor memory, intellectual disability, difficulty with reading and problem-solving.

Blackout. A study of American college students showed the 51% of those surveyed suffered blackouts after drinking alcohol, where they do not remember events or important details of events.

Greater effect on women. Researches have also found that women are more seriously affected by alcohol than men, such as incidences of cirrhosis of the liver, damage on heart, damage on nerves.

People do not realize how harmful alcohol can be, even for those who engage in light social drinking.

There are several reasons why people drink, according to the Health Science Center of West Virginia University. The first is the desire to handle their stress. The problem is that alcohol does not remove the cause of the stress, and thus it becomes a recurrent matter. There are many wholesome ways of stress reduction, such as deep breathing or meditation, so that one does not have to resort to smoking or alcohol. A second reason that it that drinking is taken as a social norm where people are able to communicate better with each other once they drink a glass or two. They reduce their inhibition. If they refuse to drink they are pressured to do so. The need to conform constrains them to drink. There are ways of effective communication without having to resort to alcohol, such as assertiveness training. Another reason for drinking is isolation and loneliness, particularly among the more elderly.

It is important for parents to let their children know the medical facts about drinking alcohol and set the example about not drinking. Young people should also be taught how to say “no” effectively without offending other people.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/addiction-science/200810/what-does-alcohol-do-your-brain

An Honesty Store

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An Honesty Shop. Would you believe that it exists? A store with no store keeper, where you just pay in a box for whatever you buy?

There is one in Batanes, the northernmost province in the Philippines. Prior to my trip to Batanes, I had heard about it, but I thought that the store was just a marketing gimmick for tourism. When I visited it, then I realized that it was a real business venture. It was started in 1995 by Elena Castano-Gabilo, a retired teacher. This year, 2017, twenty two years later, it is still existing. She opened the store to serve the needs of fishermen who would normally leave very early in the morning before dawn. And since she could not wake up that early, she simply depended on the honesty of those who buy food and drink. And it worked. Today, the store earns enough to sustain herself and her husband’s needs now that they are retired and elderly.

One wonders why it only exists in Batanes Island. Why can’t we have it in Manila, in Cebu, in Davao?

I guess the non-competitive culture and atmosphere in Batanes make the Honesty shop possible. Batanes has a small population — just about 17,000 in the three inhabited islands. There are no beggars. Neither are there super-rich people so far as I know. People live simple lives despite the exposure to television and internet culture. There is no rat race. There seems very little motive for greed and acquisitiveness. The crime rate is very, very low. This is I believe due to the cultural traditions of the Ivatans, the indigenous people of Batanes. I hope that tourism doesn’t spoil the culture of the Ivatans, which I think is in many ways superior to our regular society, especially our urban population. This makes the Honesty Shop doable.

I have travelled to almost all the provinces of the Philippines. It is only in Batanes where people on the road looked at me, sometimes with a shy but kind smile, and nodded their heads, and greeted me. Not just one person but many of them. It is as if it was a neighborhood, not a town or a city. My thoughts went to the towns or cities or countries that are wracked with violence, crime, corruption, competition, stress, insecurity, hatred and unhappiness. The complex commercial and technological world is trying to achieve a state of simplicity, peacefulness and harmony but is not getting anywhere near it. The 20th century was the most advanced but the most bloody and murderous century in history. And there in Batanes, we have the simple comforts of modernity — television, cellphone, computers, internet, and yet without the insecurity, crime, violence and unhappiness of the most of the rest of the world.

Looking at our own urban life, what can we do such that our societies can continue to advance in technology, convenience and comfort, but without the accompanying insecurities, violence and stress?

Society is a but a mirror of individuals taken collectively. Individuals are also molded by society. It’s a circular process that perpetuates itself. Thus the culture and individuals carry forward for generations and centuries what are wholesome and unwholesome in society. How do we interrupt the perpetuation of the unwholesome values and practices? How can we break the pattern of toxic customs and values?

There is practically only one way to do so: through education.

Adults have immense difficulties in changing their habits, values, attitudes and even their belief systems that have been embedded in them for twenty or fifty years. They may agree with new values but may find themselves unable to change.

Young people, on the other hand, are malleable. Their habits are still soft and pliable. With the right influence and information through a well-planned and well-carried out educational system, they can individually and collectively change and break pernicious habits of the past. This I believe is what Singapore did that enabled them to transform their society from a backward nation to a prosperous, safe and self-disciplined nation.

The Kite, the Sailboat and the Salmon

In the journey of life, there will always be opposition, adversities and obstacles. These can be from people, from circumstances or from events. If we are to live a successful, fulfilled, meaningful and happy life, we must know how to face these obstructions in our journey.

How do we stay strong and remain advancing forward despite powerful opposing forces? We can learn awesome lessons from three things: the kite, the sailboat and the salmon.

1. The kite – There are really two lessons here. First, despite the strong wind, the kite stays quite steady in the sky because it is connected by the string to the ground. Once the string snaps, then it will be thrown off by the winds, and will crash somewhere in an unknown place. The string must be sturdy, otherwise a strong wind will cause it to snap. In the same manner in our life, we need to be grounded or linked to a meaningful purpose, a philosophy or a principle. It can be a family, a life goal, a life mission, a wholesome philosophy, or a spiritual life. Despite the opposing wind, we stay on course because the link to that philosophy or goal is strong and clear.

A person with a strong moral fiber will not easily be carried away by temptation, by pleasure or by gainful advantage to do an unethical or unjust act.

The second lesson is that the stronger the wind, the higher the kite flies. Try flying a kite on a weak wind, and the kite falls to the ground. Hence opposition and adversities can strengthen us and make us capable to rising higher in our life, provided the string is strong and tough. Annie Besant, one of the greatest English reformers of the 19th century, wrote that if she were to live her life again, she would forego her pleasures and joys, but not her difficulties and adversities because these were the factors that built her strength of character.

2. The sailboat – the second lesson comes from sailboat, which moves only when the wind blows and pushes its sail. If the wind is going towards south, but the sailboat wants to go to the north, can the sailboat reach such an opposite destination?

Yes, it is possible. And there is something we can learn from sailboat in facing life’s opposing forces.

The travel opposite of the wind direction, the sailboat must face the wind in a diagonal northeast direction. When the wind blows from the front, the wind pushes the boat to the side. But because the boat with its rudder is at a diagonal angle, the sideward push actually pushes the boat forward to the northeast even if the wind blow south. After traveling northeast for some distance, the sailboat changes its angle and then faces northwest, moving forward again in that direction. The sailboat then advances against the wind in a zigzag manner.

(Illustration courtesy of rebrn. com/re/eli-if-ships-with-sails-are-heading-the-opposite-direction-as-th-1092918/)

So when we are facing opposing forces that seem stronger than us, we don’t face it frontally but diagonally. We resist but we continue to move forward even if at a slower pace. It’s low-key progress. It’s analogous to judo, where one makes use of the opposing force to one’s advantage.

Suppose a powerful and moneyed political opponent is oppressing you in order to silence you. To fight him frontally may mean being crushed and annihilated. Then do not do so. Stay firm and work in a non-threatening but right direction. Strengthen the work on the flanks that will eventually support your central work when the time is ripe to do so.

3. The salmon — this is a most powerful and sublime lesson from nature.

Salmons are born in high altitudes up to about 2,000 meters high from sea level (more than the height of Mt. Wilson in California). Then they swim towards the ocean and stay there for one to four years. When the time comes for them to lay eggs, they swim back to where they came from, which means that they have to swim upstream against raging waterfalls that may be five feet high or more. It seems impossible because the torrent of the falls is so strong that the salmons are pushed downwards no matter how powerfully they swim. But they never give up. So what do they do?

They leap up the falls and go to the next level. They don’t fight against the falling water. They jump above it.

(Photo courtesy of Earthjustice. org)

This is an example that teaches us that we need make leaps whenever we face apparently insurmountable odds. It is transcending the situation. This is what happens when we discover an insight or attain enlightenment. We transcend the ordinary level of struggle. An enmity can be dissolved by transcending hatred. Then one ceases to have an enemy. In Zen meditation, one transcends rational thinking. It is a leap of intuition.

Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aurobindo of India and Benigno Aquino of the Philippines are examples political oppositionists and activists who were imprisoned by the reigning government. From the standpoint of their political struggle, they were defeated and quashed. But they leapt beyond the political arena and rose to a higher level of struggle. Like the salmon, they no longer attempted to swim against the water falls. They jumped above and beyond, and attained a high goal than the political struggle. Mandela became an icon of peace, earning him a Nobel Prize; Aurobindo became one of the great spiritual teachers of India who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aquino lost his life and became a national hero of the Philippines, not just a President or a another powerful politician. It was his wife and son who became Presidents after he died.

The Benefits of Meditation

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Many large companies today in the United States, Japan and other countries, are encouraging their employees to learn meditation or mindfulness. One example is Google. Why? Because they found that their employees become more productive, focused and less stressed. According to the website SOS, “a 1993 study conducted in four companies in the United States and Japan showed that regular practice of meditation among employees resulted in significant improvements in job satisfaction, efficiency and productivity, as well as in work and personal relationships. Who can argue with a technique that offers such excellent benefits to both the individual and the corporation?” Steve Jobs of Apple had been practicing meditation for many years and had influenced many other CEOs among US corporations. An article in the Harvard Business Review states that “research has shown that meditation can decrease anxiety, which allows practitioners to be more resilient and handle stress better.”

More than being productive in work, meditation has important effects in one’s life. It makes us aware of our true life directions and we notice thoughts, reactions and behaviors that are not aligned to such basic directions. We do not get carried away by the patterns of our past habits and the pressure of our environment. We thus are able to live a more meaningful life. The deeper purpose of meditation is to be able to attain the highest potentials of our growth. It is what is called self-actualization or self-transcendence by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It enables a person to enter into the mystical stages of human growth to our highest level of maturity.

How do we practice meditation? There are a number of well-known classic meditational approaches. Their  basic principles are essentially similar. Below is one standard method:

1. Start with twenty minutes of self-awareness each day, preferably in the morning upon waking up. Sit cross-legged on your bed or sit on a chair at a location of your choice where you will not be disturbed by people coming and going.

2. Keep your spine straight; breathing normal; with eyes closed or half-open.

3. Be aware of your body and check whether there is any discomfort or tension. If there is, then feel it and allow it to relax when you breathe out. When the body gets relaxed, you will notice that your emotions also calm down naturally.

4. Then be aware of your breathing. As you breathe in, mentally count “one.” When you breathe out, mentally count “two.” Breathe in, count “three,” breathe out, count “four.” Continue counting up to “ten,” after which start again from “one.”

5. When your mind gets distracted by other thoughts, just return to the counting. If the mind goes away a hundred times, then be aware of it and just gently return to the counting a hundred times. Later you will notice that it will get less and less distracted. While you are meditating you will notice that there is an inner space in our consciousness that has no boundary. This space is awareness itself, something that we usually don’t notice.

6. When you end the meditation session, try to sustain this inward awareness for a minute or so while you are back to normal activity.

After you have practiced meditation for a week or two, you will notice a difference in the way that you interact with the world and with people. You are no longer as reactive to things as before, and you will tend to respond in a more calm and balanced way. You will be less prone to anger and less impatient. You will be more capable of spontaneous joy.

How to Handle Worry

Worry is something so common that we assume that it is a natural part of our lives. This is because human life is always faced with circumstances that can cause anxiety in most people. But the problem is that worry causes tension, restlessness, sleeplessness and unhappiness. It has the element of fear in it, and the fear in worry is the one that causes unhappiness. When there is no fear, then it is a concern, not a worry.

There are people who have very heavy responsibilities on their shoulders and yet they may be quite relaxed in life while solving problems that come along the way. On the other hand, there are people who easily get upset and bothered by small things, or get worried about things that they could do nothing about.

How can we minimize worry while being effective in one’s work or duties?

Through the centuries, many wise men have found effective approaches to dealing with problems without being burdened by the feeling of worry. Below is a suggested approach:

1. Be clear about what you are worried about. Sometimes people have unclear anxieties which they avoid thinking about because of the unpleasantness that arise from the thought. What is it that really bothers you? Is it because you fear you will not pass an exam? Or will lose a sale? Or that someone is sick and may die?

2. Once you are clear about what you are worried about, devote a certain period of time, like one hour, to consider the options you have in facing the problem. You may consult other people about it and ask for their opinions. Then list down the different specific options that can help solve the problem. Do you need to talk to a certain person? Do you need to write a letter? Or travel to a place? Or pay a certain amount? Or have a medical checkup?

3. When you have drawn up the possible options (even far fetched options), then identify which options are the best ones. If you have one or two options that look to be the best, then list down the things that you should do to pursue that option, and it is very important to set a timetable on when you will do those things. Such a timetable is essential, because a plan without a timetable is not a plan, but just a wish.

4. Be aware of your own inner fears and hesitations in carrying out your top options. When you are sure that they are the best options, then carry them out despite your fears and hesitations.

5. Do your best in carrying out your options. Make sure that you are really doing your best and not just justifying your inaction.

6. After you have done your best, and still fail, then accept the consequences. Annie Besant, the famous theosophist, once wrote that “What is beyond my best is no longer my duty.” This is a truth. Even if the world is going to be annihilated and you cannot do anything about it, then simply accept it. But note that you should not give up easily. Persevere if the goal is important.

There is another habit that you can adopt in order to remove daily worries in your mind: it is to write down a daily list of things-to-do.

Everyday, write down the things that you need to do the next day, whether they are big things or small things. Use a notebook or your smart phone to list them. Then on the next day, check your list first thing in the morning and do the tasks one by one until they are completed. If for some reason something in your list could not be done (such as not being able to meet a person) then reschedule it to another day.

You will notice that once you have finished doing your things-to-do list, your mind becomes free from worry on that day and you can do a lot of other new and creative things.

Effects of Words and Thoughts

A Japanese scientist, Dr. Masao Emoto, found that words and thoughts can affect the molecular structure of water. His findings led to other experiments on organic matters which have important implications in the way we should live our lives.

Dr. Emoto put water in test tubes and put different labels on them, such as “I love you,” or “I’ll kill you.” Then he froze the water in minus 25 degrees centigrade freezers. The results were startling. The test tubes with positive labels such as “I love you” formed into ice crystals which had hexagonal shapes like beautiful snow flakes. On the other hand, the test tubes with negative words looked like mud. This experiment was repeated thousands of times with similar results.

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Many people then experimented not with water but with living things, such as fruits or cooked rice. I did it myself. I put two bunches of cooked rice into two clean and dry bottles and sealed them tight. On the first one I put the label “Beautiful” while on the other one I wrote “Ugly.” I kept it on our bedroom shelf and I forgot about it for an entire week. Then I when I was looking for a book, I accidentally saw the bottles. I took them down, and saw that in the “Beautiful” bottle, the rice was still the same white clump of rice, but in the “Ugly” bottle, the rice was already half black with mold. After another week, the rice in “Ugly” bottle was almost all black, but the one in the “Beautiful” bottle was still entirely white although it had become pasty. I kept these bottles for a year, and the rice in the “Beautiful” bottle remained white, while the one in the “Ugly” became entirely black.

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I asked students in our school, Golden Link College, to do the same experiment, and they got the same results.

Many years ago, I showed the photo of these bottles during a lecture in Davao, and a young man from Leyte saw it and repeated the experiment but with a twist. He put the label called “Gwapo” or handsome/beautiful, but he sent negative, angry and violent thoughts to it. The other bottle he labeled “Pangit” or ugly, but sent loving, kind and peaceful thoughts. What was the result?

After six months, he happened to be the speaker in a conference in Leyte where I attended. He spoke about his experiment and brought the bottles. The rice in the bottle with “ugly” label was still white. But the one with “beautiful” label was entirely black.

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What does this tell us?

Words and thoughts have powerful effects not only on water but on organic matter, such as rice and fruits. It means that when we constantly think positive thoughts within ourselves, we are affecting not just our feelings but our entire body and our health. A baby’s body is 78% water, while adults have 60%. When we are angry or hateful we are harming ourselves and perhaps people around us.

An American woman was breastfeeding her baby at home when her husband came and talked with her. After a while they started to argue. They became angry and started to shout at each other. They quarreled intensely and the husband walked out and banged the door. The wife felt very furious and bitter. All the while, she was breastfeeding her baby. That evening, the baby turned blue and died.

The mother, while in a state of intense anger, probably produced toxins within her body that went into the milk that the baby was drinking. The baby could not take it.

So we ask ourselves: In our home, do we give negative labels to our children, like “you are lazy,” “irresponsible,” “liar,” etc.? We should realize that those negative words are affecting our children more than we realize. On the other hand, whenever we constantly use positive words towards them, then something is happening to them that nurtures wholesome growth and health.

Whenever we get angry, then, let us remember the experiments of Dr. Emoto. Let us change the way we treat ourselves and people around us. Make the world a better place by thinking and saying positive and affirming words.

The Power of Habits

Our destiny in our life is controlled by our habits in a very major way. Unless we master our own habits, they will control our lives.

Let us take health as an example. People get healthy or sick by the health habits that they have developed. The moment health breaks down, then practically everything stops. One may resign from work, no longer be able to travel, and dreams and ambitions can no longer be pursued. If they smoke, eat a lot of meat, drink liquor, sleep late, don’t exercise, etc., all of which are habits, what will they expect after the age of 40? I know of people who are already taking heart maintenance medicine at 40 years old, or has high sugar level, kidney problem, etc. All these are largely preventable. How? By forming the right health habits early in life.

Let us take happiness as another example. Some people have grown up developing the habit of being angry when there are problems. A few people don’t have that habit. What is the effect? Those prone to anger will have problems in their family life, work relationship and their state of happiness or unhappiness. Some are in prison right now for acts they did during moments of rage. They know that they want to be happy. Yet they cannot help but be overcome by the habit of anger. The older we are, the more difficult to change our habits.

But the good news is that habits can be changed. How can we do so?

We must be clear first about the kind of life that we would like to live. Do we wish to be loving towards our family and other people? Is this really important to us? Then make a decision that we will practice daily habits of being kind or using positive words when we interact with members of our family or co-workers. In this example of one’s goal, here are suggested steps:

1. Decide on behaviors that you will do every day, such as smiling, saying thank you, saying neutral or positive words at least 95% of the time.

2. Create a powerful leverage so that you will be motivated to develop this habit. For example, (a) tell your wife or husband about your decision, and ask him or her to give you feedback if you are not being kind and positive. Ask them to remind you. (b) Visualize yourself constantly being positive, smiling and cheerful. It may feel awkward at the beginning. But remember that you are battling a negative habit that had been formed for 10, 20 or 30 years. (c) List down the advantages if you are successful in becoming a cheerful and positive person. Then make another list of consequences if you continue to be prone to anger, resentment or being critical. This will encourage you to persevere even if there is difficulty.

3. Give it at least three weeks of constant practice. Do it every day. When the behavior is repeated for three straight weeks, you will notice a change. You no longer need to exert effort in order to be positive and cheerful. The habit has taken over and your spontaneous behavior has changed. But it must be sustained consciously even after it has become a habit.

4. Then choose another set of habits that you would like to develop in yourself, such as exercising everyday, stopping smoking, reading books regularly, etc. Do such habit development program one at a time. Make sure you succeed each time. Then you will gain confidence and your personality will become obedient to your decisions.

Remember that our body, emotions and ordinary mind are like automatons. They follow the grooves of habit — how you think, feel and act. They behave unthinkingly out of habit. They determine in a significant manner the destiny of our life. We have higher levels of consciousness beyond habits, but many people have not sufficiently developed the powers of these higher levels, and hence are more subject to the control of habits.
Take charge of your habits. You take charge of your life.