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Your Brain and Business (Unplugged)
A conversation between Srinivasan Pillay & Moe Abdou

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Srinivasan S. Pillay with Moe Abdou

About Srinivasan S. Pillay & Moe Abdou
Srinivasan S. Pillay

Srini Pillay, M. D. is a humanist, an author and a pioneer in the field of “neurocoaching” - taking brain science out of the theoretical realm into the hands of business people who could use this information to improve the social and profit making variables at work. Srini brings an unmatched level of credibility to the self-help genre. After graduating as the overall top medical student, he was trained in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and McLean Hospital - the nation’s premier freestanding psychiatric hospital for the past 20 years.
Moe Abdou Moe Abdou is the creator of 33voices — a global conversation about things that matter in business and in life. moe@33voices.com

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This is Moe Abdou. I am delighted today to have Srini Pillay join me to discuss a fascinating topic — this whole notion of fear and unlocking the fear that is prevalent in each one us. Srini, I really appreciate you joining us this morning. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. I want to start by asking you a personal question. You responded to my first email at 4 a.m. and when I asked you about it, you said something to the effect that I am in a state of flow right now, and I just keep going. I’m really curious, tell me about that feeling? I read a lot about it. Tell me about that feeling and maybe we can get into that in a little bit because if a small percentage of the world can get into that state, I think we can be at just an amazing place to live. The flow state for me has been essential because of the number of things that I do. What I try to do is anchor my day and behavior to a number of different things. I would say that when I’m in the flow state, I feel like I’m in a state of creative flow. I feel like I have a certain amount of flexibility in my thinking like I can switch tasks fairly easily. But I do try to make sure that I get at least five hours of sleep which is usually what I need per day. I also try to make sure that if I’m working in a particular area, that I anchor myself to particular objects of productivity. For example, if I’m working at an issue around fear, rather than simply being in a flow state, I will try to create some kind of goal point at which I either want to produce a talk, a seminar or a book. I think when I keep myself anchored to the goals and, at the same time, sort of try to do some of the basic things like eat well, sleep well, play well; I feel like I can move into the flow state with greater ease. Is that something that you consciously try to do regularly? Yes. In some ways I fell into it partly just because of the diversity of my interest which range all the way from science to music. And partly because of the number of things that I was doing, I felt like I needed to accelerate a lot of what I was doing. Through my understanding of how the brain works and human psychology, and understanding that a lot of the fast processing is actually done unconsciously, I
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recognize that in the initial stages of what I was doing, if I was new to it, I would be pretty deliberate and slow and try to internalize the information. And then when I got to the more creative phases, I would allow myself to move into the flow state. Again, having check in points so that there wasn’t simply in a flow and not achieving what I wanted to achieve. Obviously, that’s what leads to greater productivity. For you, it seems like your productivity level is over the top. What advice can you give to the listeners about how to trigger that flow state even if it’s just a little bit each day? There are a couple of different things. I think the first thing is to really understand what some of your goals are. If you don’t understand that you have any tangible goals, to just start create periods of exploration. I would suggest that if you feel like you are stuck on your own to try to set an agenda to have smaller groups of people so that you can have the free flow and exchange of ideas. One of the things we know from group theory is that often, it is much more productive to have a collective group and a collective intelligence rather than just single experts. I myself have benefited significantly from talking to a large number of people. I would say the first thing is to try to establish the goals. The second thing is to practice in small increments. Because, in general, both the conscious brain and the unconscious brain need to be engaged in any task that you were involved in. I think for most of us, we tend to rely on conscious things that we can see, feel, and hear. We believe in what’s going in our conscious brains when in fact there is a lot going on in the unconscious that can be much more effective and that can allow you to reach greater productivity. Most people are afraid of being in the flow state for good reasons. One of the things we know from studies in brain imaging is that the creative state or the flow state is also associated with states when you might become disinhibited or you might become more impulsive. People are afraid of going on to that slippery slope and making mistakes. The first thing I would say about that is if you establish check in points for yourself, like the examples that I gave where I would say to myself, I need to come out with a talk or I need to come out with a book at a particular point, then at least you have something to anchor yourself to in the process of pursuing that particular flow state.
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I think also for me what has been particularly helpful is learning how to become more comfortable with being wrong and reframing that. I think when we want to be good at something and we want to be dedicated to it and we want to produce things, we tend to want to be right. Counterintuitively, I think it’s very difficult to actually discover anything new unless you admit to yourself that you don’t know, because if you already know it then there is nothing to discover. I think learning how to not know, learning how to be comfortable with that, and then subsequently allowing yourself to explore to the extent that you are comfortable and then going back to the initial point, I think can be very helpful in trying to engage in what the flow state is. I think when we talk about creative flow or the flow state; I think a great example of this is in musicians and in sports players where you can really see this happening right in front of your eyes. If you see a brilliant basketball player or you see a brilliant footballer or if you see a brilliant musician, you see them engaged in this flow state. I think all of them would probably attest to the fact that being in a flow state involves a combination of very determined, structured, and sometimes nonflow practice and then using the skills that you developed during that practice period to engage in the flow and let go of the excessive control that the conscious mind sometimes wants to hold. I think for a lot of people underlying this hesitation about letting go of the conscious mind is a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear. I think the more intimate you can become with the flow state in small increments, the better for you. If you feel yourself that you feel a little insecure about being in the flow state or checking in with yourself, you can always have people you trust to check in with you just to make sure that when you’re in that state you are actually manifesting in the direction that you want to go in. The interesting thing about this especially with the brilliant book that you wrote on this whole issue of fear; you mentioned athletes and entertainers. I really believe that athletes and entertainers are probably the two professions foremost who are comfortable with not knowing or comfortable with being wrong. Perhaps maybe that’s why their fear is lessened a little bit? Is that something that you would agree with?

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I would. I would also say that in both of those professions, there is a very overt understanding of a certain amount of subjectivity. You can deconstruct music as much as you would like but there is something inevitable about the music that is incredibly beautiful but you don’t feel you have to know as you’re listening to it. I think it’s the same thing with the flow in sport. Even though you can identify what the particular strategy is, there is also a particular mind state that when you get into that mind state where you can learn to become comfortable with not knowing. So I would agree entirely. I think in those particular professions, we do see examples of how people have become more comfortable with not knowing. Having worked with people in both of those fields, I would say that it’s not necessarily not a challenge. I think for a fair number of musicians and a fair number of sports people, the whole process of not knowing is often a learning process. I think that once people actually grasp the idea that champions are people who do not make mistakes; champions are people who know how to get up after a fall. Oftentimes, champions fall much more often than people who are not winning. I think once people begin to understand that it’s not the number of times that you win but actually the extent to which you can get up from a fall, they develop a very new kind of confidence. That’s really interesting because in being a sports advocate and watching that, I really grasp that especially somebody who has studied human behavior myself personally for the last 25 years. That has become a real interest to me and that’s why your work really intrigues me. If we can get into this whole notion of fear in a minute — I’ve got a bunch of questions regarding that — maybe a good starting point would be for you to summarize your thesis of fear in a sentence or two to kind of get us going. The book that I wrote Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear was based on a combination of my experience working with people and in brain imaging. What I felt I wanted to do was present a self-help book that gave people different strategies to deal with fear. One of the most important points in this book is that fear can register in the brain completely outside of awareness.
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We know that the fear center in the brain which is the amygdala can actually activate even when you don’t know that it’s activating. The ramifications of this are really quite considerable. The rest of the book shapes itself around the central phenomenon which is described in detail in the first chapter. What’s the greatest myth of fear? I think one of the things is that you have to feel — that in order to be afraid, if you really are afraid or if fear is an obstacle in your life then you’ll know it if you feel it. I think what people don’t recognize is that fear can activate your brain completely outside of awareness. One of the dramatic examples of this is that people who have a condition known as cortical blindness which, for all intensive purposes, means that they cannot see because their brains cannot interpret but they are being shown. If you show people with cortical blindness a photograph of someone who is afraid or threatened, they will report that they don’t know what they have looked at but if you look at their brains using a brain scanner, what you will see is that the amygdala does activate. And so even in people who can’t see, this fear center can still be activated. I think that it relates to the myth that you have to know that you’re afraid because it’s clear that you don’t have to know that you are being exposed to the fear. The ramifications of this are tremendous because the fear center of the brain connects to a lot of parts of the brain that are involved in thinking, in risk assessment, and in decision making. So this excessive fear can actually erode thinking and decision making. A lot of times, we have to work backwards to try to locate what this unconscious anxiety is or even when you can’t locate it, use techniques to try to quiet the amygdala down. Most people I know you deal with and certainly most people in the world live their life in some kind of fear. I know maybe one of the biggest fears of all is the fear of the unknown especially with what we’ve seen in the world over the last couple of years. How do you begin to help people make sense of that? One of the things that I have often draw people’s attention to is the similarity between hope and fear. Both hope and fear are hypothesis about the unknown. Fear is a hypothesis that has negative ramifications whereas, hope is not only a hypothesis that has positive ramifications but it can actually displace fear from the amygdala.

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One of the things that I use as a guiding principle is to introduce people to this idea that optimism, in my opinion, does not have to be a reflection of your own reality, that optimism is a choice. This is what I mean by this. If you think about the way in which the brain works, the way that the brain works is that our attention, what we pay attention to in the world, is actually governed by our emotions. So if we are threatened or afraid, what our brains do is, our attention centers start to seek out threat. If you seek out threat, you will find it. If you really want to find threatening and horrible things in the world, you will find it. The problem is that this is biased because the fear directs your attention to look for threat. What ends up happening is that, if for the sake of an argument, you have 10 units of attention available, 7 of those units are taken up by fear. You only have 3 units of attention left to do what you need to do which I think is unfair. What we do is we don’t give ourselves a chance to solve the problems that we need to solve. What we tend to do is not address the fact that what we’re paying attention is determined by our emotions. What I will often say to people as we’re working through this progressively — I work both in a clinical context and in a corporate context because I actually coach. I do executive coaching as well — is I will identify the things that are directing people’s attention towards threat. And then I ask people to go through a successive experience of releasing their attention from threat to see what will happen. What does happen over a period of time — I think it does take a certain amount of training — is that the brain when it is released from the grip of fear then is able to use its attentional system to look for solutions. One of the things that I will do is explain to people that I think it’s extremely important to think of optimism as an approach. My definition of optimism is not in concert with the notion of cheerleading that everything is great all the time and that it’s great. Optimism is permission for the brain to stay online, to find a solution that may not be obvious. Because if you say to the brain, there is no solution to this, effectively what the brain does is say, ‘Thank you, goodnight, no need to look for a solution.’ If you say to the brain, ‘I want to find a solution to this. I don’t know what it is but stay online,’ the brain actually stays online. You’re much more likely to find a solution in that state.

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Also, we know from the brain research in optimism that optimism actually decreases brain pain. There has actually been a study that was done on people with backaches. What they did was they gave people placebo and then divided them into two groups. What they found was that the group with high optimism reported much lower pain. While people initially said—clearly, you can fool yourself if you’re optimistic because you’re not experiencing the pain, the other 15:51 that was what mattered eventually. What mattered eventually was whether you were in pain or not. If optimism is an analgesic and releases your brain from the pain to be able to find solutions to your problems, why not have that attitude. I think that there is a way in which you can find a balance between cheerleading and pessimism. I think optimism as a hypothesis, that a solution is possible even if you don’t know it, is the way to go. When you have people come to you — you give some great examples in the book of this — when you have people come to you who are kind of in the midst of what’s happened in the last couple of years in the world whether it’s economically, in leadership positions; whether it’s individuals who have lost their jobs or who are just not happy from a relational perspective — give us an example of a situation that you have worked with where somebody came to you with problem X and through your process, you helped them start to see that optimism that you’re talking about. There are a lot of examples both in the personal context where I work with individuals and in the corporate context. If I had to summarize my experience in a personal context — one of the approaches that I used in the book is what I call the MAP change approach which involves three dimensions of life. The M is for meditation. The A is for changes that you make to your attention. The P is for psychological insights that can give you the conviction to try and approach what’s different from the one that you have been trying. In the most extreme cases, where the anxiety has spilled over to the clinical realm, I will often use clinical techniques. So if medications are necessary then I think that they are necessary and then they need to be used. If somebody needs to be in a form of therapy, they’ll be in a form of therapy. What if we’re talking about the person who doesn’t need to be in medication, who doesn’t need to necessarily be in a form of therapy but needs to work through their fear using these kinds of self-help techniques?

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In terms of meditation, what I tend to do is provide examples to people about what meditation does to the fear centers of the brain and then encourage them to choose a form of meditation that they will use. I’ve had many people who have experienced intense anxiety and who have chosen a form of meditation that they have felt is in concert with their own culture. There are forms of meditation that are non-denominational like transcendental meditation or mindfulness meditation. We actually know from brain studies, for example, that transcendental meditation can actually cause different regions in the frontal lobe to work in a much more synchronous way thereby helping you problem solve and decreasing your anxiety. We also know from some of the recent research that mindfulness meditation can decrease amygdala activation simply by paying attention to where the anxiety is in your body non-judgmentally. So rather than asking why and where and how, what you do is simply place your attention on where this is. What people have shown is that this actually decreases amygdala activation. There are meditational techniques that I have used successfully with people either by introducing them to these techniques in the way that I just described and/or referring them to more extensive training within a modality that they like that has been particularly helpful to them. One of reasons I included meditation in every chapter was partly because there is a lot of brain research supporting different types of meditation and partly because this is a pretty effective way of quickly getting to some of those unconscious systems that determine how afraid we are. Then with attention, one of the things I will do is create different hypothetical scenarios so that I can help people try to reframe. In a personal context, for example, I will ask people — people will often say, “Yes, I have been unemployed. Life is terrible. My job is terrible. I hate my relationships.” I will say that I understand that and I understand that reality and I’m not asking them to let go of that reality yet. Because contrary to what we think, regardless of how negative your own reality is, giving that negativity up can actually be threatening because it leaves you on a place where something that has defined your identity in your life no longer defines that. So what I will say is, I would like to invite you into a space of possibility. What if things were better? Can you identify for me two or three things that you are

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currently tolerating in your life? Let’s explore together what you feel justifies the fact that you need to be tolerating them. I think when you ask questions that dig deeper into what people are feeling; a lot of times, they find it liberating to be able to explore this. I would want to emphasize that I don’t think this is an on the spot intervention, on occasion very rarely. If you make an intervention in an hour or two, people respond and it does change their lives very significantly. But for most people, this idea of rewiring your brain actually does take a period of time. I think that exercises and repeating this and practicing the new methods is particularly important. When it comes to psychological insights, I think one of the things we’re learning about anxiety right now is that when we think about anxiety asking, why am I anxious and where do I think this anxiety is coming from, may not be as helpful as asking, what is this anxiety serving. We now know from anxiety research that worry is actually not necessarily a form of fundamental anxiety. It is a way of trying to gain control over an uncontrollable anxiety. People generate worries in the service of themselves because it gives them a false sense of control over things that they feel they have no control over. Once you start to develop that insight and you try to help people probe what that is, you can actually start to create changes. In my corporate trainings, one of the things that I do is provide a mnemonic as a staged approach — I actually have another book that’s coming out in March called Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders. In that book, which is going to be published by the Financial Times press, I outlined an approach where there is a mnemonic called SAFE Frame where each letter stands for something in relation to basically rewiring the connection between your thinking brain and the feeling brain. The S is for resolve. The A is for reassess. The F is for refocus. The E is for reengage. The last word is Frame. By using this mnemonic you can take yourself to a different stage procedure where you reexamine the conflict. I have used this approach in management trainings. I have used with people who first learn about the way the brain works then get a chance to use this in their own conflicts. Sometimes people in corporate situations will talk about how negotiations make them anxious. When they have used this approach, I have gotten pretty positive feedback about the fact that simply having that approach and then knowing that there was a brain-based way to go about addressing some of these conflicts was particularly helpful to people.
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I can’t wait to see that and/or read that. You touched a little bit about living in a state of possibility. I see a positive correlation between the relationship that one has with him or herself and it has meant to well being. Is that kind of what we’re talking about there? I see the individuals who are really comfortable with who they are as people as ones who are the happiest people that I know. But yet, I also see individuals who struggle with who they are as individuals whether it’s professionally or personally who are the ones who were most frightened and/or unstable mentally. Is there a correlation there? I think there is. I think a lot of people who experience this intense suffering are very hard on themselves. What they tend to do is hold themselves to standards that frankly, are just outside of the realm of the possibility of being human. I think the notion of making no mistakes; of having an ideal morality; of never doing anything that you will regret; of never partying too much or never eating too much. I think it’s very difficult to create these hypothetical states of perfection and then hate yourself for it. And in that respect, I think that perfection is something that is very problematic. What I do is, I do like to distinguish that from the pursuit of excellence. I think that the pursuit of excellence is essentially about using those goals as things to move toward; all the time knowing that part of your humanity will involve failing in those attempts from time to time. I think people who are able to grasp this difference between perfection and the pursuit of excellence, often are able to forgive themselves more. I think self-forgiveness is huge. If you actually look at some of the brain research in this, self-forgiveness really does help the attentional centers of the brain. It helps you focus more on what you need to do. So many I have met find it so hard to forgive themselves. People are often their worst critics. Often, when I’m working with people, I will want them to engage this quality of themselves and ask them what this hypothetical standard is. I think from the media and sometimes from speaking to people about what is the ideal, people have this notion that there is some perfection that they have to be secretive about because they simply don’t get there. The reality is that nobody is there. The reality is that we’re all engaged in an honest struggle to try to make it work. I think if we can learn this attribute of self-forgiveness, we can really get much further.

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One of the things that the study shows is that it’s not just success that leads to happiness but happiness also leads to success. I will often use that research to draw people’s attention to the fact that you don’t have to wait to get what you want to address your unhappy state. That if you make a sincere effort to increase the state of happiness in your life, to increase the amount of selfforgiveness, the amount of self-giving, the amount of other giving because self and other giving are both very important in generating states of happiness. If you increase those states, you are much more likely to become successful. So don’t wait for the success to be happy, start out with changing your life now. I’m a big, big believer in that. In fact, I see that there is a lot of people who fear success as much as they do failure. The ones who have tasted it before, who maybe have had great victory in sports or have had a great year in business and sometimes can’t pinch themselves to get over that hurdle that I can do it again or that I deserve that. Why do you see success as just as big a fear as failure? There are a number of different reasons. The entire second chapter of Life Unlocked is dedicated to fear of success because I have seen it so often. There are a number of perspectives; one is that people fear success partly because they hold this idea inside of them that the higher you climb the harder you fall. So their whole feeling is why climb high at all, if all it means is that I’m going to fall harder. So people often avoid the heights of success for that reason. In addition, I think a lot of people are in the state of anticipation and fear. Anticipation and fear is often a default state of the human brain. What I find is that people will anticipate, what if I can’t maintain this? What if people expect things from me? What if I don’t know where I’m going? When you are a follower, you live the life of following somebody else’s example. When you are a leader, literally, there is no one in front of you. You have to invent, you have to make mistakes, you have to pave the way, and that’s extremely threatening for a lot of people. One of the terms I use to describe this is emotional acrophobia — acrophobia being the fear of heights. Fear of falling being a fear of height in your own life. That people fear their own greatness because they feel that they will be held to a standard that they won’t be able to deliver to. What I would say about that is that as long as we hold this hypothetical fear in our minds, as long as we’re always in a state anticipation, we will tend to relegate ourselves to more mediocre lives.

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There are actually lines of research and I think there are many individuals I have met who become very angry with this perspective that I’m describing to you because what they feel is they are pushed outside of their comfort zones. What I will say respectfully is that I think the comfort zone for different people is different. How fast you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone really depends on the individual and how you want to get there depends on the individual. I do think that as a generalization, most people I have met are actually capable of much more than they will allow themselves to have or reach or express in their lives. There is a syndrome in the business literature which we call the impostor syndrome which has to do with people who rise meteorically to the top and suddenly start to fail and when they start to fail, they bring the company down with them. One of the ideas behind the psychology is that when people become immensely successful of sort of the way in which we were talking about being in this creative flow, they lose control of the conscious variables that get them somewhere. Because they are moving in a flow state, the way they get to their success is through a flow state and through the unconscious. All of a sudden they ask themselves, how did I get here? And when they can’t account for how they got there, they tend to want to fall. They tend to say, I must be here because I’m a fake. I must be here because I’m an impostor. I literally don’t know how I became so successful. And not recognizing that success is often unconscious, they give in to this fear and as a result, try to destroy whatever is with them because they are afraid of being found out. I think, in general, people are afraid of heights and they are afraid of expressing their greater selves. My encouragement about that would be if you are afraid of moving too fast, move slow at first. If you are afraid of moving out of your comfort zone, find a trusting space where you can experiment with this. Partly, because you have this life to live why not try to make your life a little better. What great advice. What do you say to the individual who feels like they just can’t seem to get over the hurdle? In sports, we hear a lot about the teams who just can’t win the big game. They get really close but they get stopped or they can’t make the last shot. In business, there are organizations and individuals who just can’t seem to go from really, really

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good to great. Sometimes I think mentally, that starts to take over. What do you say to those people? A couple of different things. Actually, the question you are asking reminds me — one of the things I do as well is write a blog in the psychology of tennis; a tennis site called www.BoomerTennis.net. Recently, someone approached me to try to understand the psychology of Andy Murray. He had reached so many grand slam finals and had never won a set. One of the questions was, what happens to a person when they get so far but they just simply can’t beyond a particular obstacle? I would say there are a number of things that you can think about. The first thing to ask yourself is, are you burned out? Most people don’t recognize how influential burnout is when it comes to attaining what they want to attain. People think of burnout as—I’m lying in bed and I can’t move and I’m immobilized but the reality is that burnout actually happens in stages. Often, even through the mid-stages of burnout, you can reach a point where you feel like the rewards are so little that there is no motivation to actually move on and move further than where you are. I think have a more detailed understanding of burnout is important. I think examining how you are talking to yourself is also important. There is another book that I actually wrote recently released in January called The Science Behind the Law of Attraction. What I described in this workbook is some of the science behind the way we talk to the unconscious mind. We know from some of the recent research that has been done and published in journals like science that if you say, ‘do not do something’ to your brain, your brain will often do the exact opposite of what you want it to do. If you’re at a party and you’re carrying two glasses of red wine and you’re saying, ‘do not drop it on the white couch.’ Why is it that under stress, a lot of times people do the exact opposite of what they want to do? What we know from the research is that when your self talk is ‘do not,’ under stress, the unconscious brain does not hear ‘do not’. When you say ‘do not drop the wine,’ the unconscious brain hears ‘drop the wine’ because of a phenomenon called priming. What ends up happening is, the unconscious brain thinks that’s what you want to do. In a situation where people can’t go ahead and they are giving themselves self instructions in the form of do not, what I will often say to them is can you re33voices.com 14

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frame those messages in the form of do’s because we know that that will have more impact. In The Science Behind the Law of Attraction, I describe a number of other methods ranging from imagery based on some of what we know from sport that can actually help people get over those hurdles very remarkably. A lot of times, people are unable to move ahead because they lack a sense of confidence and they are not able to feel like they can get to where they want to get to. What we know from the imagery research is that there are five different types of imagery but there are two specific types of imagery that can really help people feel more confident. One of them is the imagery of being able to survive in difficult circumstances. In athletes, for example, it will be the whole feeling of coming from behind and training your brain to have that image. The reality is that imagination and imagery stimulates the action parts of the brain. So when we are imagining it’s not that it’s just this airy-fairy something that’s not impacting who you are. When you imagine, you actually stimulate many of the areas involved in movement and the brain is much more able to do what it needs to do. There are extensive studies both in the stroke literature and in the sport literature that show us that what imagination does is that it helps swimmers feel more flexible, it helps people lift heavier weights. This is simply imagination that I’m talking about. It helps high jumpers jump higher. Partly through this mechanism that I’m describing where people are able to use their imaginations to stimulate the action brain to get where they want to get to. My feeling about all of this is when people come to me with “I’m stuck and I don’t how to move”, I’ll do an assessment, get a sense of the degree of burnout, try to understand what the current obstructions are and then try to understand the ways in which they are talking to themselves and the ways in which they are trying to overcome these obstacles using techniques such as reframing the ‘do not’ and the imagery and a few other things to help them get over those obstacles. A lot of times, what seems impossible initially is really difficult. It’s not necessarily impossible. The more you get a taste for the possibility — there are countless examples of this in people who have broken world records for running, there are lots of examples of this where people think some thing is impossible.

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Srinivasan S. Pillay with Moe Abdou

Once they tell their brains, “Wait a minute, this is not impossible. It’s difficult,” their brains actually come back online to try to find a way to get there. By using specific forms of guidance and specific techniques, we can actually help change what’s going on in the brain so we can bring people closer to their goals. If you had one minute with Andy Murray, what would you tell him? I would ask him to examine what this habit was. I would ask him to examine the factors that we just talked about ranging all the way from burnout to the way he is imagining. I would really ask him to explore his definition—some of his hesitations around competition, his hesitations around winning and ask him to redefine the goal. Because a lot of times for winners, the idea of winning is that you have to imagine the winning well beyond where the finish line is. So you can continue to have the momentum to get to that point. I would try to explore the variables to help him get there. I’m a big believer in karma. You talked about your book, The Science Behind the Law of Attraction. It goes without saying that a bunch has been written on this topic but I don’t think any as scientific as yours. What’s the one thing that we need to know about this power? I think we need to know that this power does reside in the human brain. It certainly can be processed by the human brain. Once we understand that in ways to access that power, I think we can move away from imagining that if we sit in one place, we’re going to attract a million dollars into our lap. Instead, move into understanding that if we engage our brains, things that we thought were previously impossible, may in fact be possible and often are. Let’s talk about your life for a second. Is there a ritual that you can’t live without? I’m not usually ritualistically bound. I tend to move in this flow state. If I had to think about a ritual which I think is sort of irregularly irregular it’s that I work hard and I play hard. I like to make sure that I’m doing both of those things at any one point in time. I try to mix in a certain amount of fun with a certain amount of self examination. I try to examine myself to make sure that I’m coming from the right place but it’s not actual habit. Probably, the most ritualistic thing that I do is when it comes to performing any task, I try to keep myself anchored to the goal at hand. As long as I have that ritual in place, I feel like it gives me the freedom to explore as I’m making my way towards that goal.

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Srinivasan S. Pillay with Moe Abdou

This whole process of self examination — I can talk with you for hours and hopefully, we can continue and carry on this dialog at some point in the future — how often do you do that? Is it at the end of every day? Is it weekly? Is it monthly? How often do you sit down and what is that process for you to self examine yourself? I think it’s probably a little different for me than it necessarily needs to be for everybody. Part of it is that the work that I do requires that I do a fair amount of self examination during the day. Self examination ranges all the way from when I’m brushing my teeth to when I’m driving, to when I’m talking and when I’m engaged with people. I would say that I’m doing that several times a day. It’s really important to have a balance between an observing and an experiencing self. Observing yourself is important but life is also about the experience. I think sometimes we forget that a large part of our intelligence is just movement and acting. The movement and acting themselves can also help liberate us. There is actually a phenomenon in neuroscience that we call embodied cognition where we recognize that it’s not just self examination that helps our thinking, sometimes movement can also help thinking. It can actually influence the thinking circuits in the brain. I would say that—to answer your question directly, a few times a day. I wouldn’t necessarily want to prescribe that for everybody. I think that as long as we check in with ourselves from time to time, we can examine and we can understand what our own foibles are, things that we can get over, things that we can’t. We try to mix in a fair amount of consideration with self forgiveness. I think as long as we feel like we’re moving in the right direction there is a lot of hope. In your writing, in the way that you respond to letters and emails and in just listening to you over the last 40-45 minutes, you seem to be really happy. What drives that for you? It’s difficult. If I were to answer technically, I would say it’s probably a combination of genetics and environmental factors. I think mostly, I feel motivated and inspired by people and by the world. I mean there definitely are times when I feel down and I feel irritated and feel annoyed and feel sad. I think it’s a mixture of all of those things. But underlying all of that, is the fundamental optimism and hope and a drive.

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Srinivasan S. Pillay with Moe Abdou

I think, as I said, this mixture of working and playing — it’s very liberating. Once we get beyond simply the perceptual universe, you know, where we’re relying on what we see or hear and we understand that there is a transcendental space of consciousness which I do believe in. I think in that space, there is something that lies beyond happiness and pain that feels particularly elevating. While I can’t claim to be there all the time, I do know that being in that space provides a kind of energy and a kind of fuel for the rest of my life. I would highly recommend that people pursue their own routes toward understanding what that particular state of consciousness is. Can you leave people with a mantra to kind of eliminate or reduce the fears that they are having or live in that world of possibility that you’re talking about? The first thing that comes to mind is that optimism is a choice. We can choose to be optimistic in order to change the things that we attend to and the way we lead our lives. You’re a voice that I think will be heard for a long, long time to come not only in this field but just in this whole mindfulness field because without the work that you’re doing, a lot of us would be lost. I’m just glad I have had the opportunity to come across your book and have the opportunity to speak with you. I am too. Thank you very much. It is as enjoyable for me to engage about these ideas. I find simply from the questions you’re asking, I learned so much what continues to be important for people. I think to be involved in these kinds of partnerships where we’re actually joining to be able to spread a message to the rest of the world that could be helpful is incredibly relieving and inspiring to me. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

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