In a recent conversation with a gongfu sister, I learned that in her early days of training with our sifu, a common exercise assigned as homework was to practice using their non-dominant hand to do things like open doors, write, or cook a meal.
This is a good way to build strength, agility, and motor skills in the non-dominant hand, but it’s the broader benefit that really struck me.
Using the opposite hand from the one you usually use is a way to take everyday, routine activities and accomplish them in a way that is new, not only for the body, but for the brain.
I think of myself as a creator of systems for life. This aspect of my personality is so pronounced that I have detailed rituals for waking up, giving the ducks and hens their kale treats, and choosing what to wear each day.
I considered myself highly adaptable, believing it’s this knack for systemizing my world that helps me move with ease and efficiency even when things take a turn. Whether traveling or having moved, I can find myself in a new place and nearly immediately establish new systems for navigating the activities I need to perform on a regular basis.
I thought I was helping my brain by releasing it from having to think about the everyday things of my life; but in actuality, the habit to systemize my routines may do my brain no favor at all.
That muscle-memory mentality hinders your mind’s vitality. What the brain actually needs is upset in routine.
In order to sustain a high level of functionality, your brain depends on a good shake of the snow globe of your life from time to time.
Photograph by Brea Fisher
Fresh information and experience is what feeds the brain and keeps it nourished, youthful, and growing.
According to The Brain from Top to Bottom, “Every time you learn something, neural circuits are altered in your brain. These circuits are composed of a number of neurons (nerve cells) that communicate with one another through special junctions called synapses.
“When you learn something, it is actually these synapses whose efficiency increases, thus facilitating the passage of nerve impulses along a particular circuit” (www.thebrain.mcgill.ca).
I envision these circuits, or neuropathways, as footpaths through a forest. If you’re trailblazing through the jungle you use a machete to hack through; the path is narrow and difficult to manage. After several more times through, having continued to clear away more branches, vines, and rocks from the path, it becomes easier to walk it.
The more you travel along a path the more prominent the path becomes, and when a path is well travelled for years and by many, it soon becomes a road.
Neuropathways that are well-travelled by neurons are pathways that become roads, in a sense. So, when you go to the market and take the same route there that you do every single time, you’re sending neurons down that same neuropathway each time, which deepens it. As it becomes increasingly entrenched, your brain needs to exert less energy to get you there.
This can definitely be a beneficial thing; the less you need to think about how to get to the grocery store the more space in your brain you have for other things. However, having time-worn neuropathways doesn’t rack up many points when it comes to keeping the brain youthful.
A brain that rarely makes new neuropathways belongs to a person who is extremely rigid in their routine. They don’t try new things; they stick to what they know.
If you’re looking to stay healthy and youthful in the mind, what you want is brain plasticity, which comes from continuously creating new neuropathways.
MedicineNet describes neuroplasticity as “the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. [It] allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment” (medicinenet.com).
With this awareness you can live your life in ways that create neuroplasticity, effectively decreasing your chance of suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia later in life (dementiatoday.com).
According to The Society for Neuroscience, there are many ways to strengthen neuroplasticity, including engaging in regular social interaction, exercise, and a healthful diet.
Another way to boost your brain’s plasticity is to do new things, and keep shifting your routine on a regular basis.
Learn a new form of dance or take a painting class.
Have a few different routes home from town that you can take, and switch it up randomly.
When you hear a new word make an effort to remember to use it later on.
Or, you can take on my sifu’s assignment and chop vegetables with your other hand.
This is the Shake the Snow Globe Challenge. For the next seven days, choose one item from the list below and try it, picking a new item for each day. You can also make up your own to add to the list.
Ways to Shake Up Your Daily Routine:
1. Make a meal using your non-dominant hand to do the chopping, stirring, and serving
2. Open all doors using your non-dominant hand
3. Take a different route home
4. Take a walk with no destination and follow your intuition for which ways to go
5. Sit in a different spot to eat than you normally do, whether at home or at your regular cafe
6. Choose a new restaurant/ cafe/ coffeeshop instead of the one(s) you usually pick
7. Take a movement class you've never tried before
8. Sign up for lessons to learn a new musical instrument
9. Go to bed at a different time than you normally do
10. Don't do your morning routine
11. Listen to a new radio station/ podcast/ Pandora music station
12. Call an old friend
13. Handwrite a letter as opposed to emailing it
14. Practice a tai chi form on its opposite side
15. Practice Satyananda Yoga Nidra or Meditate while listening to the Meditation to Cultivate Wonder guided meditation recording
16. Practice Yin Yang Qigong Brain Balancing
17. Use a word you recently learned and begin to incorporate it into your regular vocabulary
18. High five people throughout the day, using your non-dominant hand
19. Wear something from your wardrobe you've never worn before, or create a new combination of clothing items to form a new outfit
20. Invite someone you don’t know very well out to lunch
21. Use a different medium in your chosen art (ex. If you’re a novelist, write a haiku; if dance ballet, try Argentine tango; if you’re an oil painter, try watercolor)
22. Strike up a conversation with a stranger
23. Instead of using your regular coffee machine to make your coffee, pull out the french press or make a pour over brew (if you’re a tea drinker, try brewing sun tea)
24. Try different ways of bathing (ex. Wash trying to imagine what it’s like for people who live in places where water is incredibly precious; or simply take a bath if you're a shower person)
25. Take a different mode of transportation (ex. If you walk, ride a bike; if you drive, take a bus, the train, or hire a taxi)
26. Rearrange the furniture of a room in your house
27. Rearrange a bookshelf, a drawer, or your closet
28. Chose a different mug to drink your morning coffee or tea in
29. Get out of bed on the other side
30. Buy a type of produce with which you've never cooked before
31. If you attend a class of any kind, choose a different spot to sit (or stand, if it’s a movement class)
32. Swap sides of the bed with your partner
33. Trade an article of clothing with a friend or family member
34. Switch which leg you have crossed on the inside during meditation
35. Practice your tai chi, qigong, yoga, or meditation in a new spot
This list is meant to inspire you to try new things, even if it means the time it takes to do these things increases. What will also increase is your brain’s health, so it’s worth it!
Commit to this week-long challenge and recruit others to play along with you. And if you like the way you feel after the week is up, continue shaking up your routine and make a habit out of that!
There’s nothing wrong with creating efficient ways of getting things done. It helps your brain make room for the things you really need to contemplate, and in a world with infinite information at your fingertips, a good system for managing all the things you need to get done is invaluable. However…
When it comes to the longterm health of your brain, it’s crucial to shake things up from time to time.
Make a habit out of regularly changing the ways you run through your everyday routines and help your brain stay malleable, youthful, and ready for anything.
If you’re ready to take on this week’s Qi Challenge, I’d love to keep up on how you’re shaking things up in your routines. Use the hashtag #ShakeTheSnowGlobe on social media to share your experience.
Or, leave a message below and let me know what this brings up for you. I’m always so very happy to hear from you.
An infant sits on the floor of a summer vacation home. Everything is new here; the space is foreign. The shag carpet is brown and glowing in the late afternoon light and she sits on wobbly hips gazing, staring, watching.
There is a dance taking place before her. The eyes that have been seeing for no longer than six, seven months at most, are mesmerized by the scene before her. A golden beam of sunlight floods the mid-air stage just above the baby’s head.
Her upturned face is captivated by tiny creatures illuminated and floating gracefully in this light beam. They are faeries, or they are sun people, or they are some unexplainable phenomenon worth remembering for years to come.
Whatever they are, they’re something this young one has never before laid eyes on and she is in a state of absolute wonder.
Years later, the infant is grown and the woman she has become remembers. The memory is clean, refined in her mind, and there are years of experience to separate the two versions of this person:
The one who is so new to the world that it is still rich in delightful unknowns, and the version who is years older, who has navigated through those delightful unknowns until they became ordinary.
The infant saw feathery beings the size of pinholes in that beam of golden light. The grown woman realized years ago that it was dust in the sun of a room not used very often.
When we are very young and new to the world, even the most ordinary aspects of life hold mystery because they are unknown to us.
As that woman who was once that infant, I know how it feels to be completely entranced— enamored— by dust particles, something we adults see as not only totally unexciting, but unpleasant, undesirable, and ugly.
As we grow older, our experience with the world diminishes our sense of delight in the small treasures of everyday life.
It takes a lot more gusto to inspire a real sense of wonder in adults, and this is the unfortunate circumstance of a world in which we believe we gain intelligence as our knowledge increases.
We think we are getting wiser with age, and in some ways this is true; however, the more we think we know, the more susceptible we are to becoming desensitized to the poetry of subtle mysteries.
In The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow, the child prodigy and nature writer, Opal Whitely, writes the following in her diary at an age most likely between 6 and 8 years:
“We went along the dim trail. There by the dim trail grow the honeysuckles. I nod to them as I go that way. In the daytime, I hear them talk with sunbeams and the wind. They talk in shadows with the little people of the sun. And this I have learned: Grownups do not know the language of shadows.”
So how do we regain the ability to understand the language of shadows?
Some say wonder is not the simplest emotion to evoke. Apparently there is a rich variety of research that has been done in the exploration of emotions like fear, anger, joy, grief, and worry.
But when it comes to studying the powerful emotion of wonder, there’s not much we know about it, scientifically. This is what Robert Fuller, a professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University, tells us in his book, Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality.
It’s difficult to evoke wonder in a lab setting. Emotions like anger and guilt are “very easy to trigger,” Fuller states in a recent interview on The Art of Manliness podcast. He says that wonder “requires something that will catch someone very unexpectedly and surpass their ability to interpret or understand that moment.”
Does this mean we can’t create space in our lives to feel more wonder?
I think not.
Ordinary life offers infinite whispers of secret worlds that are so foreign to you that it is only natural to feel wonder when looking at them; the key is to seek them out and really look.
Petroglyphs, photograph by Brea Fisher
Go to nature and you will find these secret worlds.
Watch, as with each step you take in the grass, little black spiders race in arches away from your path.
Smell the faint perfume of a lilac bush on the breeze and take the time to follow it to its source.
Sit as audience to the wind as it plays conductor to the quartet of Pinon, Juniper, Cottonwood, and Ponderosa.
Make friends with an ant and study her travels as if searching out all the reasons one may have to fall in love with this tiny creature.
Take a walk through a garden and sample tastes of each herb you come across, taking the time to describe the flavors of each distinctly different plant.
Sit by the river and dip your feet into its flow; get lost in the way the water moves over a particular rock, or find a reed in constant dance under the rhythm of the current.
You can go deep into the natural world of your own body and tap into a sense of wonder just as potent as one watching a meteor shower on a clear new moon night in the desert.
Going to nature doesn’t necessarily limit you to a world outside yourself; after all, the human body is nature, too.
Below you’ll find a guided meditation I’ve recorded for you. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted for about fifteen minutes. Get out a yoga mat, or lie on a rug or thick blanket; this meditation is best practiced while lying down in savasana as opposed to sitting or standing.
If you’ve ever practiced Satyananda Yoga Nidra before, you may recognize the method I use in the first section of the meditation. In Swami Satyananda Saraswati’s book called, Yoga Nidra, he defines the practice as “a powerful technique in which you learn to relax consciously.”
To be clear, the following meditation I offer here is not yoga nidra; however, I highly recommend the practice. I use Satyananda’s process of calling out each body part, and specifying between the right and left sides as a potent method of relaxation.
Satyananda states that “the progressive movement of awareness through the parts of the body not only induces physical relaxation, but it clears all the nerve pathways to the brain, both those governing the physical activity and those concerned with incoming information. At the same time we make a total run through the brain surface, from the inside out. In this way, yoga nidra relaxes the mind by relaxing the body.”
Some may say that the opportunities to feel wonder diminish over time. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be summoned.
If you’re seeking ways to inspire a sense of wonder, the surest way to find it is to pay attention.
Whether you go to the river, the mountains, the meadow, or the vast expanse of wilderness that is your physical body, wonder can be experienced when one is looking, listening, and using all the senses to receive it.
Begin intending to feel wonder and allow yourself to open to the possibility of it coming to you in unexpected ways.
My wish for you, is that you find wonder in your life as often as possible and that the delight it inspires within you is contagious to all the other grownups around you who may have forgotten the language of shadows.
Do you remember an early childhood experience of wonder? When was the last time you felt real wonder? Did you practice along with the guided meditation? If so, what came up for you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so please leave me a note below!