Breathing, Willpower, & Relaxation.

The excerpt below is from “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. ISBN 1583334386 (ISBN13: 9781583334386).

The book is about what neuroscientists know about willpower and is choc full of practical advice based on that research, written in a very clear manner.

Different parts of the human brain are responsible for our impulses and self control. The part of the human brain responsible for self control is at its strongest when a person is not stressed. The excerpt below is for a simple breathing exercise that has been show to quickly relax a person and help shift control back to the part of the brain that does self control.

I haven’t seen those results yet, but this breathing exercise is amazingly effective for clearing your head. I’ve tried many other worthy breathing exercises over the years but this one wins with the combination for effectiveness, ease of learning, and how quickly you can get results:

You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to
immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience.

Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges. It’s a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you’re staring down a cheesecake.

Start by timing yourself to see how many breaths you normally take in one minute.

Then begin to slow the breath down without holding your breath
(that will only increase stress). For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely (pursing your lips and imagining that you are exhaling through a straw in your mouth can help).

Exhaling fully will help you breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling.

If you don’t quite get down to four breaths a minute, don’t worry.
Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute. Research shows that regular practice of this technique can make you more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve.

One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet. And because it takes only one to two minutes of breathing at this pace to boost your willpower reserve, it’s something you can do whenever you face a willpower challenge.

The Path To Stoicism

Picture of Epictetus

A modern revival of Stoicism is quietly happening.  Changing times are making Americans realize that while they can do a lot to improve their lives they can’t visualize and positive think every last thing they want into existence.  New books on Stoicism and modern easy to understand translations of ancient works have been fueling this revival.

Big surprise, the popular conception of Stoicism is completely wrong. It isn’t about hiding your emotions or fatalism.  In fact, many ordinary people are getting into it, because it is making them happier.

I don’t know anything about Stoicism, so I started reading the new book
“How To Be A Stoic” by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci.   The book is written in a very down to Earth, personal tone, and is easy to read.

In the beginning of the book Pigliucci tells his story of his search for a personal belief system to organize his life around.   It struck me how similar his search was to my own experiences and the experiences of so many other modern people.  Below are a few extracts of his account from pages 4-6 of his book:

Something else was going on at a time that made me pause and reflect. I have not been a religious person since my teenage years ( I was prompted to leave Catholicism, in part, by reading Bertrand Russell’s famous “Why I Am Not a Christian” in high school), and as such I have been on my own in dealing with question of where my morals and the meaning in my life come from. I take it that an increasing number of people in the United States and across the world find themselves facing a similar conundrum.

While sympathetic to the idea that lack of religious affiliation should be just as acceptable a choice in life as any religious one, and strongly supportive of the constitutional separation of church and state in the United Sates and elsewhere, I have also grown increasingly dissatisfied with ( make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the so-called New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others. Although public criticism of religion ( or of any idea) is the staple of a healthy democratic society, people don’t respond very well to being belittled and insulted.

There are, of course, alternatives to the New Atheism if you want to pursue a nonreligious approach to life, including secular Buddhism and secular humanism. Yet these two paths — the two major ones on offer for those seeking a meaningful secular existence — are somehow unsatisfactory to me, though for opposite reasons. I find Buddhism’s currently dominant modes a bit too mystical, and its texts opaque and hard to interpret, especial in light of what we know about the world and the human condition from modern science( and despite a number of neurobiological studies that persuasively show the mental benefits of meditation). Secular humanism, which I have embraced for years, suffers from the opposite problem: it is too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the result that — despite the best efforts of its supporters — it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning. Hence, I think, the spectacular lack of success (numerically speaking) of secular humanist organizations.

By contrast, in Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly is eminently practical.  The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality: everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to
natural processes.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering them accordingly. In other words, it is an open-ended philosophy, ready to incorporate criticism from other schools (for instance, the so-called Skeptics of ancient times) as well as new discoveries. As Seneca famously put it:

“Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover”.

Note: the quote above was hand copied, so any writing errors are mine and not the author’s.

Banned Books Week 2017

This year read a banned book week falls on:
Sunday 2017 September 24 – Saturday 2017 September 30th

Every year for the past 35 years the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week: The Freedom To Read

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. Check out the frequently challenged books section to explore the issues and controversies around book challenges and book banning. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

The American Library Association maintains a list of The Top 100 Banned Novels Of The 20th Century for your reading pleasure.

There is even a web site and a domain dedicated to Banned Books Week called

Lastly here is a list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books Of 2016:

Please read or talk about a book from one of these lists during Banned Books Week 2017.

All freedom and all progress is ultimately rooted in the free flow of ideas.