Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Prioritize your well-being. Do not stint on self-compassion.
When we are rested, relaxed, calm, and centered, we are more creative, thoughtful, generous, and compassionate. When we are exhausted, we are more irritable, more myopic, less patient, less tolerant, more prone to illness and injury. The quality of our work suffers. Our health suffers. We are emotionally spent and unavailable for those we love most. We are easily triggered. Triggers occur in context and along a predictable timeline. Preconditions influence the way we enter an emotion. Pre-conditions can be physiological (Am I rested or tired, healthy or ill, sober or intoxicated, satiated or hungry, calm or stressed?), emotional (i.e., if we are saturated emotionally that feeling may carry over into the next experience), or cognitive (i.e., how skillful we reframe unpleasant experiences, self-regulate, or manage strong emotions). The state we're in shapes the stories we tell ourselves.
All contemplative schools of meditation approach wellness holistically. We attend to pre-conditions, taking a proactive approach, daily and intentionally promoting those conditions that encourage resilience, health, calm, joy, and clarity. We don't hope to feel good, we research and experiment; we are intentional with our practice and do not compromise on this. We do not leave our well-being to chance or surrender our power over to others.
Change can be challenging to sustain, so we leverage the power of habit. It is easier to take small actionable steps and build them into our daily routines so that we no longer have to think about them or motivate ourselves to do them anymore than we have to think or motivate ourselves to brush our teeth. Good habits become routinized and require little effort.
Simple visualization exercises can prime procedural memory which encourages habit formation. We mentally rehearse the specific steps necessary to execute some desired goal. Imagining yourself engaged in your target activity from start to finish can increase the probability that you will perform and complete it. The more detailed and realistic the mental rehearsal, the more we engage the neural circuitry associated with habit formation. This may take time. Contrary to the popular notion that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, it can take from 18 days to 250+ days for the brain to rewire itself- depending on the individual and the habit one is trying to adopt... or break.
A brain structure called the basal ganglia contains circuits that promote both action execution and action suppression. The basal ganglia runs a "Go/No-Go" algorithm. Experiments suggest that the basal ganglia plays a key role in modulating and gating decisions via the go or no-go pathway. At the experiential level, many of us find it easy to do some things (whether positive like exercise or negative like smoking) and hard to not do other things (whether positive like not overspending or negative like not exercising).
Within the basal ganglia is another structure called the dorsal lateral striatum. The dorsal lateral striatum is active at the beginning and at the end of a habit. This function is called task bracketing. The dorsal lateral striatum frames events just before we initiate a habit and right after we terminate a habit. Other neurons are active during the execution of the habit. Task bracketing is like a script that gets triggered when certain conditions are present. Task bracketing impacts whether a habit will be context dependent or not, whether strong or not. Whether this algorithm runs or not is based on our state: on how focused, how resourced, how calm we feel. When we are tired, distracted, stressed and spent, it is easier for the brain to run the GO command for cigarettes or alcohol to take the edge off the anxiety, to issue GO for cookies or processed foods that suppress cortisol and alleviate stress (at least momentarily) and to issue NO GO commands to work out, to meditate, to prepare a nutrient dense meal.
To live more mindfully is to write executable scripts for the brain to run no matter what, to exercise no matter what, to meditate no matter what, to eat well no matter what, to sleep well no matter what. We can do this by visualizing, by mentally rehearsing an event- with particular attention focused on the moments preceding an action and following the action (the task bracketing sequence). We anticipate challenges and imagine obstacles.
If, for example, I want to run in the mornings, I visualize that resistance and imagine myself lacing up anyway, reaching for the doorknob, opening the door, greeting the sun, feeling the cold on my face, feeling the movement of the body in motion. I also imagine myself suffering AND pushing through the discomfort. This is my reward. I imagine how good I will feel after putting myself through the stress. The more realistic my visualization, the more honest I am, the less likely I am to be disappointed. I embrace the suck!
Meditation is like this. We imagine ourselves sitting, and we anticipate the obstacles. Simply acknowledging mind wandering as normal mutes frustration. If, on the other hand, we sit with the expectation that the mind should be empty, calm, quiescent, peaceful, or blissful and it is not, we trigger a dopamine reward error response. Our expectations are not indexed to our experience. "No matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to keep my mind focused and relaxed." "My mind is restless. I must not be doing something right." We've missed our target expectations. A pea-sized structure in the brain called the habenula inhibits dopamine activity. The habenula is an anti-reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which affects learning, attention, and motivation- among other functions. Too little of it, we lose interest, attention wanders, motivation wanes. Experientially, we may think, "Meditation just isn’t my thing."
If, on the other hand, we recognize mind wandering as normal and reframe recognition as a victory, a different process unfolds. When we celebrate the aha moment, neurons activate in the brain’s ventral tegmental area (VTA), a place in the midbrain that secretes dopamine. Dopamine is the signal that creates that rush of joy or bliss, and it travels from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens and spreads from there to other structures throughout the brain. The increased dopamine levels deliver a sense of pleasure, improve attention and interest. We’re then motivated to repeat our behavior to reach that pleasure again. The mind wanders- aha! I recognized it's wandered. I return my attention to the object of focus. Again, the mind wanders, at some point I recognize the mind has wandered. Yes! This is the attitude of the skilled meditator.
The basal ganglia, and especially the striatum, are engaged in activities related to learning. Interactions between the dopamine-containing neurons of the midbrain and their targets in the striatum fuel motivation. We can leverage reward-based learning. The more we practice, the less the need for reward. Doing becomes its own reward. This leads to “automaticity” and a resilience against competing actions that might lead to unlearning.
Below are practical, actionable steps I take to promote my well-being. I don't invest much mental effort in the habits I've outlined below. These tasks have become routinized. They're structured in phases. I perform those disciplines that require the most effort and energy in the morning. Some of these strategies may be useful to you, some of them may be impractical or inadvisable, especially if you have a health condition. Each person has a unique biochemistry. A diet that works for one, for example, may cause inflammation for another.
My regimen has changed over time and will continue to change as I grow older and learn more, adapting to whatever comes to pass. Below is the most current iteration. Each strategy is research-based. I've highlighted and linked to relevant pages for those who want to learn more. Some of these exercises are extreme and can do more harm than good if you have an underlying health issue. So, please consult with a professional first.
A good day starts the night before. I wear a Fitbit and Oura Ring to bed to track sleep. My average sleep score is 85/100. The measures I've taken to ensure a good night's sleep are many. Much of what contributes to a good night's sleep is mentioned in the list that follows: exercise, meditation, and diet. I stick to a schedule. I'm usually in bed by 8:30 and fast asleep by 9 (as of this writing). Bedtime rituals include micro-journaling, a gratitude practice, a daily performance review referencing back to the intentions I had set in the morning, and meditation or self-hypnosis. Sometimes I will listen to a guided meditation on Insight Timer as I transition from wakefulness to sleep. Some nights, I practice deep breathing and retention before bed. Because I have sleep apnea, my oxygen levels fall. Deep breathing techniques help improve oxygen efficiency. I tape my mouth closed. This forces nasal breathing. I found this more effective than the CPAP machine and get better sleep. I use an oral appliance to keep my airways open. Before bed, I supplement with Magnesium L-Threonate, Apigenin, and L-Theanine. Some nights, I'll take a tablespoon of tart cherry juice or eat kiwi prior to bed. These also aid in sleep. I keep my room cool. I wear earplugs, eye shades, and use brown noise to filter out city noise. I hung blackout curtains to filter out light.
2. Breath work
When I wake up, I relieve myself. I drink a glass of water, then return to my room. I practice several minutes of pranayama, or breath work. I'll do different exercises to control the breath including breath holds. I may practice the Wim Hof Method or variations to induce a hypometabolic state (e.g., bhastrika, kapalbhati, bahya pranayam, nauli kriya, and sodarshan chakra pranayam). I slow the breath and heart rate. I wear a pulse oximeter to measure my performance on most days. I'll do 3 to 7 rounds of intense breathing exercises a few days per week. Several times a week, I'll take a CO2 tolerance test and measure my BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) score. This is a measure of pulmonary capacity and may be correlated to one's ability to manage stress.
I carve out an hour each morning for meditation (which includes breath work). This centers me. Cortisol spikes in the morning. Cortisol is often called the stress hormone, but it also promotes alertness. In the morning, I dial it down. Before meditation became a keystone habit, I would rush out of bed, dialing cortisol up. By midday, I'd be exhausted and stressed. Now, I cycle down in the morning and reset midday.
Brain waves occur at the following frequencies (from slowest to fastest): Delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.5–7 Hz), alpha (8-–13 Hz), beta (13–30 Hz), and gamma (30–100 Hz). Brain waves are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. The more demands on the mind, the faster the cycles. We enter an alpha state when we meditate.
Below is a snapshot of EEG data recorded during one of my morning meditation session. The alpha, delta, and theta waves are most pronounced, followed by beta and gamma. Beta waves are associated with thinking, mental busyness, and outwardly focused attention. During meditation, my thinking mind is at rest. When, later in the day, I need to think, the mind is clear and hyper-focused on the task at hand.
4. Intention Setting
I set intentions for the day. I anticipate and simulate experiences, evoking feelings, leveraging the power of the predictive brain during these mental rehearsals. I express gratitude for the day that is about to unfold.
Once formal meditation ends, the informal practices begin. "Choose peace," "Bless," "Let go, " or "Delete" are examples of intentions I may repeat to myself throughout the day. I use the BlipBlip app and set reminders at 15 minute intervals. When I get to a choice point or when I'm tempted to react, this discipline helps me respond from an energy I choose to come from.
I have a cup of water as soon as I wake up. Sometimes I will mix it with electrolytes. I juice. Among my favorites are 1. carrot, apple & turmeric root, 2. celery & pear 3. ginger/lemon tea, and 4. beetroot. Beetroot contains nitrates which improve cardiovascular function. The increase in nitric oxide also improves lung function and muscle contraction. Beetroot juice is best before a workout. Celery contains powerful anti-oxidants that help reduce toxicity while boosting immunity. Celery juice activates the gut by restoring hydrochloric acid which aids in digestion. It's an anti-inflammatory and helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure. I'll drink this after breakfast or after a workout. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory. It also has anti-oxidant properties. Turmeric boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The BDNF protein plays a role in memory and learning, and it can be found in areas of the brain responsible for eating, drinking, and body weight.
After my workout, I'll make a protein shake with ashwaghanda, an ayurvedic herb. Benefits of ashwagandha include: increased energy levels, improved concentration, and stress relief (measurable decreases in cortisol levels of 14.5-28%). It has anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects. I'll also mix in Mucuna Pruriens. This magic velvet bean is not only a source of protein but of L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine. I use oat, almond, hemp, or other nut milk as a base. I usually add three or more of the following ingredients: bananas, berries (black, red, raspberries, strawberries), mangos, pineapples, peanut butter, flax seed, hemp seed, chia seeds, maca, Greek yogurt, and frozen spinach, kale, or collard greens. The drinks are nutritious and delicious.
I drink a cup of coffee or green tea in the morning and may have green tea, matcha, or yerba mate after a midday meditation. I mix protein powder, creatine, MCT oil, ghee, and cinnamon with my coffee. Creatine aids in muscle growth and repair; cinnamon lowers blood sugar levels by as much as 29%. The fats from the MCT oil and ghee fuel the brain.
I stop drinking around 3 or 4, so as not to disrupt my sleep. For a while, my last drink was moon milk. Moon milk consists of oat milk or nut milk (e.g. coconut, macadamia, almond, etc.), coconut oil, turmeric, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, cardamom, ginger, and triphala. Triphala works as a natural laxative, is anti-inflammatory, and has other medicinal and beneficial properties. Haven't prepared moon milk in a while, but it's worth mentioning.
After my morning meditation, I work out. The benefits of exercise are many. I integrate exercise into my day, especially on days I cannot make it to the gym. I cycle to work several days a week. Because calisthenics can be performed anywhere, I sometimes do 1-3 minutes of light exercise throughout the day. I use a push-pull-leg split. On a push day, for example, where I'm isolating the muscles of the chest, I may drop during a break and hammer out pushups. Over the course of the day, these add up. I also added yoga and pliability training exercises. I use foam rollers, peanut balls, and bands to lengthen and soften muscles.
I practice breath work while I exercise. Short breath holds simulate the effects of high-altitude training by inducing both a hypoxic (lack of oxygen) and hypercapnic (high carbon dioxide) response. These two effects lower sensitivity to carbon dioxide, increase endurance, reduce the discomfort and fatigue from lactic acid build-up, increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, improve breathing economy, and improve VO2 max (McKeown, 2015).
As the sun rises, you might find me running back home from the neighborhood gym. Natural sunlight triggers photosensitive ganglion cells in the retina. This activation primes the superchiasmatic nucleus which sets our circadian clock. As the day progresses, levels of the hormone adenosine gradually increase in areas of the brain that are important for promoting arousal, especially the reticular activating system in the brainstem. Elevated concentrations of adenosine inhibit arousal and cause sleepiness. By the end of the day, I am ready for a good night's sleep.
On par with sleep and exercise, a healthy diet is one of the most impactful disciplines we can adopt. All of my meals are plant-based & nutrient-dense. I include fermented foods to aid in gut health and enjoy trying out recipes from around the world (thanks, Internet). Not only what we eat, but how often we eat matters. I practice intermittent fasting & eat between 6:30-2:30. Benefits of this discipline include: a 5 fold increase in human growth hormone (after 12 hours), increased insulin sensitivity, autophagy/cellular repair (after 16-18 hours), weight management, increased metabolism, improved heart health (reduction in amyloids), increases in brain-derived neurotropic factor (which aids in the growth of new brain cells), and a slowing of the aging process. This split (8 hours eating/16 hours fasting) works best for my constitution and helps with sleep.
I eat a big breakfast (sample breakfast) and began adding one clove of garlic after learning of its benefits. It is rich in Vitamin C, B6 and manganese. It also contains traces of other nutrients. I enjoy a big lunch between 12 and 2 and skip dinner, giving my body time to digest. I eat more protein in the morning and more carbohydrates for lunch. I try to include foods rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that converts to serotonin to promote a good night's sleep. That is, I schedule meals to promote sleep which promotes vitality and clarity and repair.
Sometimes, I will prolong fasting for two or more days. After 24 hours, liver glycogen stores are depleted. I start running on ketones. Ketones are an appetite suppressant. After day 2 or 3, the hunger pangs are diminished. Ketones are antioxidants, which provide more oxygen. The body works more efficiently with less. Ketones are a more efficient fuel than glycogen, so the thyroid isn't working as hard. Inflammation drops. The gut gets a reprieve. After 48 hours, stem cells are stimulated which promote healing and repair. After 72 hours, we experienced greater immune functioning. We increase our resistance to stress.
Extended fasts also provide important feedback about which foods to eat. I find this protocol more effective and less extreme than elimination dieting. When I reintroduce foods, like grains, sugars, dairy, oils, nightshades, or other foods with particular properties ( e.g. histamine-rich foods), I can test which categories of food are causing my body discomfort, inflammation, or other adverse physical response and which promote vitality and health.
I supplement with multi-vitamins, Omega 3, and glucosamine/chondroitin to support healthy joints. I began taking resveratrol, NMN, and NAD to slow cellular aging. I cycle on and off nootropics. Nootropics are supplements designed to enhance cognitive functioning and overall health. Rather than buying my vitamins, minerals, and supplements separately, I sometimes buy a stack (which contains the vitamins, amino acids, choline donors and herbal adaptogens to promote focus, clarity and overall cognitive health). At night, I sometimes supplement with Magnesium L-Threonate, Apigenin, and L-Theanine.
9. Cold therapy
I wake up, work out, eat. After breakfast, I sit in an ice bath for 2-10 minutes. I do this several times a week. The exercise and cold prime my sympathetic nervous system. I strengthen my stress tolerance. Cold water immersion elevates levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, the same neurotransmitters that regulate pleasure, motivation, mood, appetite, and alertness. Extreme cold promotes neuronal growth.
In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, participants were submerged in cold water (57°F/14°C) for an hour. Plasma dopamine concentrations increased 250 percent (equivalent to a few lines of cocaine). Plasma norepinephrine concentrations increased 530%.
10. Mid-day meditation
Most days, I carve out 10-30 minutes for a midday meditation to reset the mind and optimize cognitive performance. Attention and energy fluctuate as the day progresses. We experience peaks and troughs in performance. When depleted, we experience cognitive fatigue.
One of the techniques I use to recalibrate the mind is yoga nidra. Yoga nidra (or yoga sleep) is a state of deep, non-REM rest. The brain falls into a delta wave state (<4 hz), consistent with deep, non-REM sleep, yet the practitioner remains conscious. There are 4 levels to the practice (Parker, 2013). Level 1 represents a state of deep relaxation. The brain is in an alpha state (8-13 hz). It may drop to a theta state (4-8 hz), Level 2, during the deepener practice. In Level 3, we approach a state yogis call abhava-prataya; thought ceases, but awareness remains. We experience a deep state of rest, but remain aware of our surroundings. At Level 4, a practitioner remains in a simultaneous state of sleep and conscious awareness.
Below is a real-time EEG graph of my brain's activity during a yoga nidra practice. I drop to an alpha state for about 14 minutes, then cycle all the way down to a delta state at 2:34. I remain at Level 4 for about 15 minutes until the practice ends.
Our perceptions and attachments are the root cause of many distresses. I monitor my thinking throughout the day. By remaining mindful, I find it easier to detach from thoughts. When eating, we eat; when walking, we walk- as Buddhists are fond of stressing. By engaging fully in whatever we are doing, we can cut mental elaborations. When it's time to think, I think. Otherwise, I let my mind idle and enjoy the moments as they unfold; I pay attention to the details, maintaining a state of curiosity and wonder.
12. Neti pot
Several times a week, I'll use a neti pot to irrigate and flush out mucus and debris from the sinus cavities. This enhances nasal breathing and improves O2 delivery. I'll do a neti wash after working in the shop or on the house.
There are many benefits to journaling: we express what is alive in us, we set goals, we document our progress, we record ideas, brainstorm, relieve stress by brain-dumping, we self-reflect, improve our creativity, keep a record of experiences we might otherwise forget. Micro-journaling is a more concise and brief variation of journaling. There are many apps that enable this. Because of character limits, brevity and clarity are encouraged.
I read or am read to daily. Over the course of a year, I may finish between 50-200 books. It's a way to strengthen empathy, to practice perspective-taking, and to learn from the experiences, research, and wisdom of others. To improve comprehension and fluency in multiple languages, I read in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. Learning languages has many cognitive benefits. Many public libraries offer digital libraries to patrons. I use Libby, Sora, and Hoopla. All free.
16. Compassionate communication
Communication is a skill that we can practice each time we interact with others. Marshall Rosenberg's Non-violent communication technique is the one I use most often. I listen for the speaker's feelings and true needs. I try to listen for what they genuinely want to express and do not take the words at face value. With compassion and empathy, we can have deep, authentic and meaningful conversations with others. These connections can develop a degree of closeness, understanding, and trust the heart longs for. To be seen and heard is a gift we can give one another. This is one of the simple acts of kindness we can extend to others.
17. Working Signature Strengths
A signature strength is a character strength which are grouped into 6 main classes: wisdom & knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence. Signature strengths points to our deepest values- for one it might be curiosity, for another honesty, for another social connection or teamwork or prudence. My top signature strengths are curiosity, love of learning, gratitude, self-regulation, and perseverance. Daily, I search for ways to exercise these strengths. This post, for example, is the fruit of curiosity and love of learning. I was curious to learn how to optimize my potential and learned self-regulatory techniques which, I hope, are of value to readers. You can identify your signature strengths by taking the survey.
When I say no to a request, I am saying yes to some other value like peace, health, self-discovery. I am sincere about prioritizing my well-being. I am more committed to promoting inner-peace, joy, and compassion than to ambition or getting ahead. When these come, they come as a consequence of my putting first things first.
19. Sauna & Ice Baths
I purchased a portable UV sauna for under $300 and a steel stock tank for less than $150. Sometimes, at the end of a day, I'll treat myself to the sauna and sit in heat (130-140 degrees F) for about 15 minutes, then sit in a tub of ice for 10-20 minutes. In addition to the benefits I mentioned above, ice baths also reduce inflammation and improve recovery by changing the way blood and other fluids flow through the body. Blood vessels constrict when the body is exposed to cold; they dilate when we exit. This process helps flush away metabolic waste- including lymph, a clear fluid made up of white blood cells and fluid from your intestines. While the heart circulates blood around the body, the lymph nodes don’t have a pump. Ice baths constrict and open vessels manually, which helps stagnant fluids in the lymph nodes circulate. Increased blood flow floods the cells with nutrients and oxygen.
What does not appear on my list of daily-dos are those things I do not do. Via Negativa is the art of what not to do. I do not watch television. I am not on social media. I do not seek distractions or engage in meaningless activities. Nor do I stress myself with must-dos, including the disciplines listed here. If I don't get to them, I don't get to them. I give myself permission to fail. I do not stint on self-compassion. I cycle on and off routines; I modify them and adapt to changes.
I don't wake up hoping I'll feel good. I don't take my cue from culture or from others. I've made it a priority and have found what works for me after decades of research and experimentation. Can you appreciate the difference between wishful thinking and intentional practice? I can wake up hoping my mind is clear, hoping to be in a good mood, hoping that others are kind to me, hoping traffic is light, hoping the boss is not angry, hoping my partner will understand me, hoping the unfolding of the day conforms to my expectations of what good should be OR I can wake up and clear my mind, regulate my brain's chemistry, communicate skillfully with others to elicit their goodwill, hold others in compassion's light, seek to understand so that I might be understood, and practice mindful living so that I am fully present moment to moment.
Don't leave your peace or joy to chance. If anything I've written resonates with you, experiment for a few weeks if you care to. What works for me may not work for you. And what works for me may not work for me in 6 months, 6 years, or when I turn 60. Life is a precious gift. May you find what works best for YOU so that you can live more fully. I wish you health, love, peace, and happiness.