All Hail the Coming of the Great Amygdalan King


Donald Trump as KingThere has been a great deal of interest lately in the practice of mindfulness, and more particularly how mindfulness and other contemplative practices actually affect the functioning of our brains. Many contemporary, scientific studies have been undertaken, completed and validated that show a direct correlation between practicing various forms of meditation and significant changes that take place in our brains when we do so. “Neuroplasticity” has become a new buzzword in the world of brain science, referring to the discovery of the flexibility and malleability of the brain, that it actually can change in shape and form throughout our lifetime. 


Key to our understanding of how our brains work on a regular basis is acknowledging the battle that goes on between two important parts of this amazing organ . . . the Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex. The Amygdala is the most primitive part of our brain, and if you believe in scientific evolution as I do, then the Amygdala was the first part of our brain to form – hence, it is often referred to as the lizard brain or the reptilian brain.

Lizard brain pop top

On the other hand, the Prefrontal Cortex is the most recent area of our brain to form through the ages and is the most highly evolved part of our brain. Please see the illustration below indicating the locations of these parts of our brains.


The Amygdala is the center of our fight, flight or freeze response, and all mammals react in a similar fashion to fearful, stressful and worrisome events. Whenever we are subjected to fearful things, it is this most primitive part of our brain that lights up, comes “online” and takes charge of our behaviors. Our natural desire for safety and survival then causes us to default to some very basic and primal habitual behaviors when the Amygdala is in charge.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Conversely, the Prefrontal Cortex has been compared to our executive, control center. It is where we problem solve, rationalize, make reasoned choices and decisions, exercise impulse control and self-regulation and use our wisdom, insight and intuition.   It is also our empathy center.

Now, here’s the disturbing news. When our primal Amygdala is in charge and is lit up like a bonfire, our Prefrontal Cortex simultaneously grows dim and actually often goes “offline.” From a strictly evolutionary perspective, there was no need many thousands of years ago, when early humans were being stalked by a hungry tiger, for any mindful pausing and thinking deeply. If we did, we became a quick and tasty meal for the pursuing predator.

Unfortunately, the brains of all mammals are still working this way because we have yet to evolve completely out of this mode of cerebral functioning. And even though most of us in the civilized world don’t have to be on the run from actual lions and tigers and bears in hungry pursuit, we do have many cultural and societal “predators,” some real and some imagined, that are constantly stalking us, stimulating our lizard brains, and simultaneously darkening and closing the door to our rational brains. This has been referred to as an “Amygdala hijacking.” It’s pure science.

Amygdala hijack

So, where am I going with all of this? First, let me interject that I do not intend for this in any way to be a political statement, but rather a non-partisan assessment based on my interpretation of scientific findings (which unfortunately these days may be a political statement unto itself I suppose). It is my belief that we have a large part of our American culture today that can actually exclaim, “It’s not my fault, my Amygdala made me do it!” Or put another way, we have a significant part of our population that is suffering from the dreaded “Amygdala hijacking.”

For whatever reason, and there is a plethora of reasons dependent upon who you talk to and what their political or religious persuasion is, an extraordinary amount of fear is circulating around among us Americans. I actually think it all started with 9/11, and then we elected an African-American president . . . but regardless, there are many of us walking around zombie-like here in the States with blazing Amygdalan heads lit up like radioactive orbs, dragging our ugly lizard tails behind us.

People in fear

And so the terrible tale unfolds (no pun intended.) There is a man who is running for President of the United States who has smelled the blood of the variously traumatized and is preying upon the fighting and fleeing of the legions of scampering squamata.  And as you may have suspected, I am calling out and anointing Sir Donald of Trump as the great Amygdalan King. (Don’t stop reading now, or you are just admitting that your Amygdala is in charge and you are unable to rationally proceed.)

Donald Trump as King

No presidential candidate in the history of the United States (except possibly George Wallace) has ever before been able to use fear like this master, regularly whipping his followers into what seem to be inexplicable and often primitive frenzies. How can this be in our civilized world? Many of us keep asking all the right questions, seeking rational answers for how such a man who relentlessly badgers and bullies his fellow human beings, which would normally be utterly distasteful and unacceptable in our culture, could be the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency.  Again, there is an elementary scientific explanation for this madness.

Remember, when the old lizard brain is in control, the Prefrontal Colight bulb offrtex, or the enlightened place in our minds where we make reasoned and rational choices, exercise impulse control and self-regulation, use our wisdom and intuition, and where we are able to empathize with our fellow human beings even if we disagree with them, is completely and utterly and uncompromisingly unavailable to us.

It’s lights out!

It’s like being in a really dark room with no flashlight. This is why millions of scared Americans keep blindly following and supporting Trump in the face of the mounting evidence of his textbook, pathological narcissistic personality, inauthenticity, nastiness, and bombastic promises to “make America great again.” This is why so many of Trump’s followers don’t require the traditional presidential vetting or legitimate policy stances that we regularly require of our other candidates for this prestigious office. This is why they are able to stare the bullying, racism, cursing, meanness and demagoguery right in the face and act as if they don’t see it.   This is why they stand by frozen and watch protesters being manhandled and abused at Trump rallies. This is why evangelicals here a man claim his love for the Bible and his own deep Christian faith, but completely overlook and ignore his blatantly unchristian behaviors and proposals. And many of them (us) are nervously laughing and cackling at it all (just watch the debate audiences), another classic sign of being insidiously traumatized.

Neuroscience has shown us that certain standards of civilized ethics just don’t matter anymore when we are living in a constant state of low-grade fear and anxiety and our automatic pilot, lizard brain has hijacked our senses and is telling us to run, fight, or freeze or we will be eaten alive! It’s a really confusing and dark place to be for modern human beings. Consequently, what is unfolding before us is an enormous American tragedy where we find normally rational and thoughtful people helplessly subjugated to this powerful, subconscious force of nature, madly stumbling around in a great, gathering darkness. More simply put, this is why so many ordinarily smart people are doing and saying some really fascinating and dumb things these days. But, it’s not their fault . . . their Amygdala made them do it.

Lizard brain 3

(Stay tuned for Part Two of this story – How do we turn the lights back on? Is there a possible antidote for this political/cultural/neuroscientific predicament we find ourselves in? I have hinted at this in the opening paragraph of this blog)



The Bored and Brilliant Challenge in EDHE 105 – 2015

NoteToSelf_Marquee              Bored and Brilliant image from radio show

After hearing from my students on a regular basis that they easily identified their smart phones and social media usage as their number one distraction and enemy of focused attention and time management, I decided to introduce them to the Bored and Brilliant Challenge.  I learned of this idea from NPR’s wonderful radio show, Note to Self, hosted by Manoush Zomorodi.  The essence of this challenge is based upon the assertion that our culture today promotes constant connection with technology, and consequently we rarely have any good “down-time” for wondering, daydreaming and relaxing into deeper thinking.  Furthermore, it appears that this constant connection and jumping from one bit of “shallow” information to the next trains the brain to not be satisfied with focusing intently upon one task at hand, like studying for a test or writing a reflection paper.  Here’s a link to the radio show that thoroughly describes the Bored and Brilliant Boot Camp Challenge:

So, we narrowed down the focus to three days to make it workable for us and took the challenge.  On day one of last week, my students were asked to “Put it in your pocket.”  They were not allowed to access their phones as they moved from place to place on campus.  Day two was “See the world through your own eyes,” and students were not to take any photos on their phones all day.  Day three was “Delete that App!”  Students were required to identify their favorite social media app (Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) and delete this app for the entire day.

After submitting their reflection papers on what the challenge was like and how successful or unsuccessful they were in complying with the demands of the challenge, we book-ended the experiment with a class session conducted completely in contemplative silence.  During this class session, we explored being bored and brilliant by spending time outdoors simply daydreaming by the fountain in the Quad and then returned to our

Bored and Brilliant 5

indoor classroom to color and draw.

I really enjoyed watching my students relax into their disconnected daydreaming and it warmed my heart to watch them pick up their crayons and color with abandon like they were in kindergarten.  Only time will tell if this experimental project will benefit my students long-term, but it is certainly clear to me that they are looking for relief from their constant connection with technology, and possibly the permission and acceptability to seek it.

Bored and Brilliant 3 Bored and Brilliant 1

Ampersand Magic

Ampersand 3

     Early today in the midst of a contemplative, sacred pause (#asacredpause), I had an insight.  And this insight has stayed with me throughout the day. It seems that possibly this was one of those illusive “aha” moments when a creative breeze or whisper passes over us and the curtains of the mind flutter; nonetheless, I have not been able to shake it.  And, it all began with a heightened awareness of “and,” the “&,” the AMPERSAND.

I then began to follow a storyline of wondering why it is that there is so much EITHER THIS OR THAT and so little AND in our world today.  Consequently, I began to think about my mindfulness practice, particularly relative to the concept of “expanding the container of my consciousness” where I am intentionally able (sometimes, not always) to hold with relative comfort two different or seemingly contrasting views in my mind . . . and in my heart.  And, I began to notice that when I do this, there is a distinct relaxing, a softening, a release of the tightness in my chest that appears to originate from holding on to an EITHER/OR perspective.

And so, I started thinking about some of the things of this world where I have been able to use the magic of the ampersand to find ease and relative comfort when all around me on Facebook and Twitter, and certainly on network television, there is a mighty war being waged between the forces who support only a THIS or THAT consciousness and worldview.  So, here’s some truth. With an expanded, relaxed and open heart, I can believe in, support, hold to be true, etc.  . . .

  • Ampersand 4Both marines in combat serving our country, firefighters rescuing babies and Caitlyn Jenner as courageous beings.

Ampersand 6

  • Both same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, in and out of the church, are good things for the many varied people of this world.
  • Both the 2nd Amendment (right to bear arms) and greater gun control are needed today in the United States.
  • Both the 14th Amendment (naturalized citizenship) and stricter immigration laws are needed in the United States.

Ampersand 2

  • Both a love of the South and Mississippi, our culture, and our rich histories and a need for a change in our state flag.
  • Both Ole Miss and The University of Mississippi.  Ampersand 7
  • Both Ole Miss sports and Mississippi State cheese.
  • Both Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
  • Both capitalism, free enterprise (for those who can) and socialism (social security, public schools, public libraries, public parks, national defense, U. S. Postal Service,
  • Ampersand 8National Weather Service, interstate highways, Amtrak, FBI, CIA, FEMA, Dept. of Homeland Security, medicare/Medicaid (for those who can’t)

So, here’s what I say.  “Try it.”  Try prying open that door in the heart that separates and opposes and imagine holding one thing in one open hand and the other thing in the other open hand.  Hold them there together . . . gently, balanced, harmonious.  Now, take a few deep breaths in and out, and see if you also begin to notice a relaxation, an easing of the soul, a letting go of that old tension and fear.  Give yourself permission to try “this and that” rather than “this or that.” There’s really no need to take sides. You actually can hold them both peacefully in the magic of the ampersand.  I wonder what the world would be like if we all started consciously doing that? 

Ampersand 1


KORU Mindfulness Training Workshop

KM-logo-full-color  KORU Training - Earthrise Sign

This past week I completed a four-day training for teacher certification conducted by the KORU Center for Mindfulness at Duke University. Fortunately the training was held at a wonderfully pastoral site – the Earthrise at IONS Retreat Center just outside of Petaluma, in northern Marin County, California.  Nice cool temperatures and low humidity in August were so refreshing for this Mississippi guy.KORU - Sunrise

KORU mindfulness training is specifically designed for teachers of college students and emerging adults (ages 18 – 29) and was created by Dr. Holly Rogers and Dr. Margaret Maytan in the fall of 2005 while they were both serving as clinicians at the Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services Center and Clinical Associates in the Department of Psychiatry at the renowned Duke University Medical Center.

The textbook for the training, authored by Drs. Rogers and Maytan, which has some invaluable information on the specifics of teaching mindfulness successfully to college students, is Mindfulness For The Next Generation – Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives, Oxford University Press, 2012.

I am so grateful once again that my University has supported me in this training,and I am anxious to bring these newly refined mindfulness skills into my classroom this fall.  Hotty Toddy, freshmen!  Get ready to go minds up!

Horizons’ Third Summer, 2015

Horizons 2015, tooHorizons 2015

I’m always a bit melancholy after finishing another summer practicing mindfulness with the amazing Horizons’ children at Ole Miss.  My heart is so full when I am practicing with these children. Their little faces are extraordinary and so reflective of their experiences.  I am reminded once again that most children at these young ages (rising 1st grade through 4th grade this summer) are naturally mindful and have a much easier time actually staying in the present moment than we do as adults. All of the Horizons’ children come from challenging socio-economic backgrounds and homes in which there is likely little time to practice and appreciate being calm and peaceful. Therefore, I am deeply grateful when I can see that they “soak up” the careful attention that I give to them, and in return they demonstrate their innate little human being desire to be safe, happy, healthy, peaceful and free.  May it be so.

Horizons at the University of Mississippi is a key initiative in the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement’s mission to fight poverty through education in Mississippi.

Winter Retreat at IMS


I am grateful that I was able to spend the week of January 24 – 31, 2015 in silent retreat and mindfulness training at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  My teachers were exceptional in their own mindfulness practice, their wisdom and their knowledge . . .  John Peacock, Christina Feldman, and Chris Cullen, all from the United Kingdom. What good fortune to be able to sit with and be a student of these remarkable folks!  Upon my arrival, I was greeted again this year by a good old-fashioned New England blizzard, with 2 feet of fresh powder falling from the sky and wind-blown drifts exceeding 4 feet.  When I am safely ensconced indoors in silent retreat, I love this kind of weather, for it only deepens my sense of being enveloped in a womb of peace and stillness.

Wake Up Call.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

by James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

James Wright, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose. Copyright � 1990 by James Wright. Reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Thanks to my friend, Claiborne Barksdale, for reminding me of these wonderful words.

My Luckyday.


Luckyday Mindfulness 3Luckyday Mindfulness 4

This past week I had the good fortune of making a mindfulness and stress management presentation to 75 incoming Ole Miss freshmen.  These students are our incoming Luckyday Scholars for this academic year and were participating in their orientation retreat out at Camp Lake Stephens.  I am grateful to my colleague, Patrick Perry, for inviting me each year to be part of their orientation.   

The Luckyday Success Program at The University of Mississippi is about scholarships, but it’s so much more than that.  As a Luckyday Scholar, you will get the support you need to be successful in college. 

 The Luckyday Success Program is a scholarship that assists students during the critical transition from high school to college.  This program helps you develop study and life skills, including time management, communication, critical thinking, leadership and problem solving.  Building a strong foundation during the first year is the key to a successful college career.


Frank Rogers Day and the Luckyday Foundation

Frank R. Day, former chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Trustmark National Bank, had a heart for young people and a desire to help them succeed. Until his death in 1999, Day provided scholarships anonymously through the Luckyday Foundation for eight Bailey Magnet School students. His goal was to provide deserving high school students who otherwise had little chance for a college education with the opportunity to continue their education at a major university such as The University of Mississippi. Day, a native of Aberdeen, was an alumnus of The University of Mississippi and the Graduate School of Banking at Louisiana State University.

In addition to serving as chairman of the board and CEO of Trustmark National Bank, Day committed himself to helping young Mississippians achieve their educational goals. In 1978, he established the Luckyday Foundation to do just that. Although Day died in 1999, his vision lives on through his foundation, which continues to support deserving Mississippi students. “The Essence of Survival” was Day’s favorite metaphor for life.

Erosion of Negative Space Sanctity (Loss of Impulse Control)




     It appears to me that in our social-media saturated culture, we are losing the sanctity of negative space, or the security and freedom to be silent .  . .  . to say nothing about someone or something. When communicating on social media, particularly Facebook, it seems as though there is an uneasy sense of urgency to say something, say anything about certain people or events . . . one must at least “like” what someone else has posted as soon as possible. Otherwise there is this low-grade anxiety crawling around in our over-stimulated, nervous minds whispering to us that if we don’t say or “like” something, then in our silent, negative space there is an assumed disagreement or an “unlike” of what is being said by others about this someone or something. For example, if everyone is posting or “liking” posts about Robin Williams’ death, does my silence mean to some Facebook friends that I must not care, or even worse, maybe I am having some dreadful silent thought or opinion about Robin Williams that I am keeping from everyone. 


     Maybe we are losing our impulse control, our natural braking system, in the time-crunching, nervously twitching reality of Facebook world.  It certainly seems that way as irrational postings regularly flash across our multiple screens, that are clearly indicative of a mob-like rush to judgment without reason or fact-checking research.  The evolved, rational mind of the pre-frontal cortex is being overridden and shut down by the wiggling, worrisome amygdala or reptilian brain, that sends us all into fight or flight mode as we scroll and scroll and scroll. At some point, more often sooner than later, this bothersome itch has to be scratched.

The concept of impulsivity has many different aspects and definitions, but in general it covers a wide range of actions that are poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unduly risky, or inappropriate to the situation and that often result in undesirable outcomes, or more simply put, a tendency to act prematurely and without foresight.

     In art and music, negative space has always been a positive thing.  It is a place for the eye, ear and mind to rest in a composition.  It is considered good design to balance the two. The Japanese have a word (Ma) for this sacred interval, which they believe gives shape to the whole. In the multiple variations of our cyber world, maybe we are squeezing this sanctified space out of existence. Even as I write this, there is some discomfort, something unsettling about this prospect, because this impulsive Facebook thing is now seemingly in my bloodstream. Maybe it would be wise for us to pause and reintroduce ourselves to a belief in the goodness of negative space . . . to silence . . . to the beauty of no response, no reaction, no “liking” or “unliking.”  I think I’ll give it a try.

P.S. Text me if you are worried that I don’t like you in my silence.