Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating interviews Dr. Srini Pillay, who is a medical doctor, a world-renowned Harvard psychiatrist, executive coach, award-winning author, and brain imaging researcher. Dr. Pillay shares how he used his clinical research to provide a biological, psychological, and social perspective on one’s health. In this interview, you’ll learn how to use the two basic kinds of intentions in the brain, goal intentions and, implementation intentions to help you get through the discomfort of habit changes and set you up for success. Below is the transcript of the interview. Marc David is the founder of the Institute of the Psychology of Eating – psychologyofeating.com
Marc: Welcome, everybody. I’m Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. Here we are in The Future of Healing Online Conference. I have the wonderful honor of being with Dr. Srini Pillay. Welcome, Srini.
Srini: Thanks so much, Marc. It’s really lovely to be here.
Marc: Same here. Srini is a dear friend and colleague, and I want to say a few words about him. He’s a medical doctor, a world-renowned Harvard psychiatrist, executive coach, award-winning author, and brain-imaging researcher who applies his extensive background in human psychology in the brain essentially to help people overcome obstacles.
Srini graduated as a top medical student and won the most national awards of any resident at Harvard. He was Director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program at McLean Hospital, and is regarded as a global leader in the management of stress and anxiety, as well as habit change. He’s the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, and has led the company to being voted one of the top 20 movers and shakers in the leadership development industry.
In the past year Srini has created many programs, including The Untapped Power of You, that’s an online burnout assessment, an intervention tool called Burnout Buster, an app to manage anxiety, an app called GearShift and an online program to help people develop a successful mindset for weight loss called Noodlefist Habit Changer. He’s also the author of the motivational book of the year, Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.
He’s been interviewed from all over the place. I know you as an extremely thoughtful and compassionate human being, and I would love for you to share a little bit of how you got on this journey of psychiatry. What led you down that road?
Srini: Certainly, I’d be happy to tell you subconsciously what led to that. I can’t say that that will be the truth. But yeah, I think consciously it was just sort of being at medical school and recognizing that I was looking for an integration of a number of different disciplines. Because psychiatry involved the brain and involved the psyche, I felt like it was a really wonderful place for me to begin to apply my expertise in thinking about the heart, in thinking about the brain, in thinking about the gut. I feel like psychiatry is one of those places where you can really think about the whole being.
So I think from my perspective, it was really the integration that it offered. I think I started out learning – I did brain imaging research for 17 years while I ran a clinical practice. I see myself as a bridge in general, because I don’t really believe in polarities of thinking. I think a lot of human suffering comes from thinking am I good or am I bad, as opposed to just living life and letting the experience of life transform you. I think that’s true about all the decisions we make, it’s what we eat, the people we choose to be with. I think part of it is that we feel like we have to choose to avoid torture. But the truth is, in choice itself there is torture.
So I think that psychiatry was a place where I could get to ask these kinds of questions, and at the same time reach out to people in a way that felt holistic. I could think biologically, think about the brain and the body. I could think psychologically what was actually happening in the psyche and why were people behaving a certain way.
Then try to understand socially whether people felt like they fit wherever they were or not, and how all of this came together.
I would say that probably my deepest influence is really spiritual. But whenever people ask me about that I always tell them that I’m somewhere halfway between martinis and meditation, because I think I struggle like everybody.
Marc: Understood. When I think about the brain these days it feels like so much of what I hear oftentimes, and they’re almost little throwaway comments. When somebody’s behavior, their habits, their moods, it’s not working for them and you’ll hear, “Oh, it’s my brain chemistry,” or, “Oh, it’s my neurotransmitters.”
It seems that on the one hand this is such an important conversation, like what’s going on in your brain, what’s going on in this physiological organ. On the other hand, it would be easy to say, “Oh, it’s just my hormones. It’s just my neurotransmitters.” I’m wondering your thoughts around this, because it feels like there’s this interesting gray zone there.
Srini: There is. I think what that question also relates to is, am I born with how I am and do I have to stick with it? I think that certainly we all have genetics. Genetics to a certain extent is fixed, but to a large extent is also changeable. For example, meditation can change your genes. So genes are not as fixed as we once thought they were. For a long time we’ve thought that the brain is fixed, that the brain can’t change. It’s just my chemistry. It’s just my brain. But we now know that the brain can change, and that is called neuroplasticity. The fact that the brain can change I think is just amazing.
One of the thinkers about this outside of the brainscience realm, but related, is Carol Dweck. What Carol Dweck talks about is mindsets. She talks about two kinds of mindsets, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. All of her research has shown that people who are less fixed, who believe that they can change, who believe that change is possible, who believe that a better life is possible, these people generally score better on intellectual tests. They have higher degrees of empathy. They have a huge number of advantages. They’re able to handle conflict more easily.
So there’s something about having a growth mindset that I think is incredibly important. I would say biologically we now know that the brain may be resistant to change, but it is wired to change. I think that the dialogue really needs to open up about if my brain can change why is it always fighting back whenever I’m thinking about changing, because that’s what makes me think it’s fixed when in fact it’s not. It’s actually quite changeable.
There are a number of studies now that show that various brain regions can actually undergo changes, if we do things ourselves that are different that can actually shunt blood from one region to another. That can actually be maintained over a period of time as well. So I think the great news is that the brain can change. I think the challenge is getting the brain to be onboard with us, and that’s what I call making a deal with the brain.
Marc: What does making a deal with the brain look like, and who is doing the dealing?
Srini: That’s a great question, on multiple levels. I think to start out, when we think about having conversations with our brain that’s a dualism. We, the person who’s speaking, me in this moment, I have a capacity for self-reflection. So I’m thinking, what can I change in my brain? What’s really cool is we now know that if we think we can change how our brains are functioning, and as a result change how we’re thinking afterwards.
In terms of who is speaking, I think at a superficial level it’s a person speaking to their brains so that they can actually provide directives to their brains. I think at a deeper level the goal is to look beyond this dualism, to actually have a place where the observing self and the experiencing self are actually one. There isn’t this constant editor, sort of chattering, but that you move about the world with the sense––but that really I think most people who are on a spiritual path would agree that that takes a long time, and that in the process of learning trying to be self-reflective is important.
In terms of how you make a deal with your brain, it depends what it is you want. So if we look at the broadest category, which is change, you’re doing something, you want to be doing something different, or you want to do it differently, how do you start to make a deal with your brain? Well, that’s a long story. I usually do a three day workshop on this, so we could spend a long time talking about that specifically.
But if I think of hitting some of the highlights, what underlies that question is if the brain can change but it’s resistant, because there are habit pathways––what I often will say to people is we fall into habit hell. So the question is, how do I get out of habit hell?
One of the things we need to do is to get the brain to be committed to a new form of thinking. The problem is if you’ve been doing something over and over again in the same old way, whether it’s the way you eat, or the relationships you have, or the way you manage relationships or conflict, to change the way the brain is doing that, to make it committed to a new way can be challenging.
So what brain imaging studies have shown us, one of the findings we have, is that in order to remain committed to a new way of thinking or being you have to activate the left frontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that’s right here. What are the different ways that we can access that region?
There are a number of different ways, but one of the powerful ways is called spreading of alternatives. Spreading of alternatives means there’s alternative A, which is where you are, and the brain has a certain relationship with it. It knows the advantages. It knows the disadvantages. Then there’s alternative B, which is where you want to go.
Then the brain also knows the advantages and disadvantages about that.
To remain committed to a new pathway, to stimulate this left frontal cortex, you have to create a spread between the two so your brain is very clear why now sucks and the future is great. Most people would say, oh, that just sounds like pros and cons. Well, it’s not just that. You’ve actually got to be emotionally engaged with why. Even though now it works in a certain way, it’s probably not the most that you can be. The future, as frightening and as threatening as it may seem, is something that you really need to embrace because it’s going to serve you better.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that the way we self-message is we often say I want to change but now’s fine, because we also want to be optimistic about now. You can imagine if you are the brain and you’re busy taking our messages, “Let me see what Marc wants me to do. Okay, Marc wants me to change. He wants me to change my behavior. That’s great. Let me make a note of that.” Then Marc says, “No, but now’s fine.” So the brain’s like, “Well, do you want to change or do you want to not change?”
So part of what spreading of alternatives is asking us to do is to really admit to the fact that as much as now is okay, it’s very much not okay. Once the brain knows the spread between where you are and where you want to be, it knows that there’s a big difference. The bigger the spread, the more the left frontal cortex activates to take you to your goal.
In order to create that spread, to really accept that you want something different, you want a different relationship, you want to live your life differently, you want to just change the way you look, in order to really do that you’ve got to pay a price, because in order to make a deal with the brain you’ve got to basically give up some emotional money. What we call that is switch cost. Switch cost is the price you pay for change.
One of the things that I generally will tell people is that it’s not just about the pros and cons and that’s my list, “Oh, I see why the future is great. Let me go for that.” Your brain’s not going to buy it unless you tell the brain, “Look, I know the future is going to be more frightening. I know it’s unfamiliar. I know I’m not going to be good at doing it.”
If you list all the things that are frightening you about the change, and then you deliberately and consciously tell your brain, “Despite that, I want that,” then your brain’s like, “Oh, okay. So you want me to do something that’s going to freak you out, and you’re cool with that.” You say, “Yeah, I’m actually cool with that because the payout in the other end is so much greater that this is just like paying emotional money to get to the other side.”
So the switch cost, or spreading of alternatives, these are two basic constructs. I actually have an app called GearShift where I walk people through some of these paradigms that will come up today, where you actually can go in and then just give yourself a five step process where you say: step number one, why the future is better than now; step number two, why the future is better than now; step number three.
You go through each thing, and when you’re done at the end of that your left frontal cortex is definitely going to be more active because you’re more committed. But you’ve got to also articulate the switch cost, so your brain knows why you’re willing to pay that price. That’s what deal making is. Deal making is paying in emotional money, and being clear so that your brain understands what it is you want to achieve in life.
Marc: One of the things that’s sort of swimming around inside me as you’re speaking is that when I put my words on this it’s almost as if we have to agree to discomfort at some point. Generally speaking, humans are trying to get out of discomfort, which is probably why I’m doing my unwanted habits or behaviors in the first place. It’s getting me out of some kind of discomfort. Now all of a sudden I’m saying, okay, I’m going to make a choice which I know is causing me discomfort. It seems like that goes against our nature, because I just want the pillows nice and smooth.
Srini: I think it gets back to your first question, which is nature versus nurture. The whole question of do I actually have a nature, am I fixed, or can I nurture behaviors on top of that nature? So I think one of the ways to actually begin to understand what you’re talking about, when you think about the research that’s been done on how to manage this kind of discomfort, one of the modalities of therapy that’s really leading – it’s drawing everybody’s attention right now, is what we call acceptance commitment therapy for excessive worry.
When you start to feel uncomfortable, you start to feel worried, maybe you can’t sleep at night, you feel a little bit angry, irritable, when you start to feel that kind of discomfort the temptation is to fight it or to come to terms with it by rationalizing. Paradoxically, one of the ways to deal with that is to actually say what of this do I need to accept, and is there a different way I need to be thinking about this discomfort? Because the first thing we think is discomfort means a bad thing, and discomfort means I’m a bad person, and discomfort means I’m wrong. When in fact, discomfort is discomfort.
That’s pretty much all it is.
If you look at it, you’ll then begin to see that it’s a certain kind of restlessness. Then if you ask yourself, what’s the message that my brain is trying to give me? My brain is telling me that it’s used to something and that’s why it’s going to stay stuck there. I’ve got to say, “Dear brain, I love you but we’re going to need to go through this discomfort to get to the other side. Trust me, it will be worth it.”
I think what you’re saying about the discomfort is absolutely true, but I think when we fall back on the nature argument then we’re forgetting that we can nurture an entirely different self in this universe. I think one of the things I would say to people is we all do it. You and I were just riffing on this before this conversation. What am I really? Am I the stuff I choose or is what I choose just a rationalization?
I don’t’ think anybody can really answer that question unless you transcend that level of thinking, but I’ll give you an overt example of what the brain is capable of doing. The brain is an excuse making machine in general. It’s a pretty amazing––it’s a beautiful organ. It’s wonderful that we have it.
But if you look at what the tissue is capable of doing it’s sort of remarkable, because if you think––people who have a right parietal stroke, people who have a blood clot on the right side of the brain or cannot move the left side of their bodies, if you ask them to move the left side of the body, what would you expect them to say? You’d expect them to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t move it.” Except they say, “I don’t feel like it.”
So when human beings have an incapacity they will often say, “I don’t feel like doing it.” Once I knew that fact, it got me to question everything that I was associating with my nature. It made me realize, brain tissue has the capacity to make up excuses for incapacity.
Every time I think about things, that’s why––people will say, then what’s the right thing to do? Should I change or should I not change? I would say that life is one big experiment. I think of spirituality that way. I think of the notion of God that way. I think of the notion of relationship. It’s really about experimenting with how you can reach deeper and deeper levels of your own consciousness.
I think the brain piece is just one piece of that. I think to the extent that we can engage our brains and we can say, hey listen, I know you’re uncomfortable but I just want to give you––we’re going to think of this differently. This is not going to be some terrifying thing. This is going to be the rollercoaster that I’m going to learn to enjoy, and I’m just going to think of life that way.
It’s easy to say. We all, including me, there are times when I’m like, “Just get me off this thing. I don’t want to be with this degree of discomfort.” I think that’s okay. I just think as long as we’re continuously engaged with this question, we’ll be at least giving ourselves the benefit of asking that question and getting that answer.
Marc: While we’re playing in the playground of the brain here, let’s connect that into eating.
What does the brain have to do with eating?
Srini: A lot. Firstly, the hunger centers are in the brain. Eating is often related to hunger, and so if we understand what our brains are asking for a little bit more intimately we may have a better chance of actually intervening. I take a middle of the road stance on this. I’m not somebody who avoids cupcakes or martinis. But I do believe that it’s important to decide for yourself where you want to set your extremes and where you don’t, and then decide when you want to be moderate and when you don’t want to be moderate.
If your brain is giving you a hunger signal, the first thing I would say is ask yourself, what’s this about? Is it about reliving a past experience? Is it about truly being hungry? Is it about saying I’m hungry, and you’re just going for the first thing in sight? Could you surround yourself with something different, or is it really that thing that you’re after?
Just at the most basic level I think there are hunger instincts that are related to eating. But I think the science on that, my own personal interest with regard to the brain and eating has to do with decision making, and how we can make the changes that we want more effectively in order to be able to get to our goals.
There are so many exciting new things here that I feel––it’s hard to figure out which one to focus on. But I’ll say something, one of the things that I think is easy and simple initially, and then we can talk a little bit about goals and how you can use your brain to get to your goals when it comes to eating.
A lot of times people find it very hard to stick to diets. They’re like, I’m on a diet. It’s the new year. I want to be healthier. I want to work out. All this stuff is very general. The brain, when it gets such general messages we call these goal intentions. Goal intentions are intentions that are very broad.
There are two basic kinds of intentions in the brain. There are goal intentions and implementation intentions. Goal intentions are broad intentions like I want to be healthier, I want to lose weight, I want to eat better food. Implementation intentions are I want to go to the gym at 8 a.m. on Tuesday morning every week, where there’s a very specific directive. Your brain doesn’t have a whole lot of leeway there. It doesn’t have a whole lot of flexibility. It knows that there’s a specific thing that you want to do.
Studies have shown when it comes to eating and dieting that implementation intentions often are superior to goal intentions. If you can convert your broad goals into specific goals and put them into some kind of timetable, and then pursue them, you’re much more likely to be successful at your dietary choices than you are if you just leave your goals in this broad form.
Having said that, some of the more exciting research that contradicts that, but also doesn’t, is that we can’t really find an intention center in the brain. We’re not really sure what’s going on with this because it doesn’t seem like if you imagine an intention that something just comes up automatically. Instead you get a whole lot of different regions that start to light up. It’s like you have an intention, you press a switch, and it’s like all of a sudden you get these lights that come on.
What people are beginning to understand is that an intention is not just a cognitive statement. It’s not just I want to work out. It actually has to have the deep desire involved in it. It has to have the sense of loss acknowledged. It has to have the risks, the benefits, all of the stuff comes together and equals the intention.
I could say, “Oh yeah, I want to work out three times a week for at least an hour. That would be great.” Or I could say, “I definitely want to work out. I’m so psyched about this because I know that if I do this…” If you’re authentically connected with your goal, your brain is much more on-board than if you’re just giving it a little instruction and thinking it’s going to listen.
Think of yourself. If you had a conversation with someone at a dinner table and you were like, “Yes, that’s very nice. So what is it you want?” If they were speaking in a monotone, you’d go off to sleep. It’s the same thing. If you were talking to your brain in a monotone, your brain’s not going to listen to that.
So the first piece is resolve goal intentions into implementation intentions. The second piece is remember that an intention is not just an intellectual statement. It needs to involve your true and authentic emotions. If you’re not there, don’t force it. Just think about it. The third thing, which I think is one of the most intriguing lines of research these days which I’m very excited about, is that it appears that goals are not what we thought they were.
There’s a new line of thinking called a selfish goal theory, which is based on the selfish gene theory, which is basically that goals in your brain are just patterns of neuronal activation. You have a goal and then your brain knows it’s going to go from A to B to C to D. What studies are showing is that along the way––first, imagine you have a goal. I want to lose ten pounds. Or I want to eat less fat or less carbohydrates. Whatever you’re thinking, imagine you have a goal. Your brain actually starts developing––that goal operates independently of your overall well-being.
Classic example, and this applies to men or women. I’m using this specifically with women, although it really could apply to anyone. A woman says, “I want to have a baby in a conventional way,” which means that she wants to––so she says, “Step number one, I want to be in places where there are more men so I can meet someone I really like and then I want to have a baby.” It’s like, that’s cool. It serves her and it serves the goal. The goal is have a baby. It’s fine with the goal to be around more men and it’s fine with her.
Then number two is, “I want to also start looking better. I want to work out. I want to make sure that I’m eating healthily.” Great. Good for the goal. Good for the woman.
Goal number three, “I think I’m just going to take these diet pills that I don’t know anything about to completely lose weight.” Now all of a sudden we’re in this territory where the goal is developing momentum, and all that circuit cares about is itself.
In all our heads we have all these goals that are racing against each other, and they don’t necessarily care for the overall wellness of who we are. So what I would say is that when you have an eating goal, it’s important to manage the goal and not just have it and think it’s going to take you wherever you just set it, because along the way the goal has a life of its own and it’s just going to be about which neural circuit outweighs the other. Whichever one is talking the loudest in your brain is the one that’s going to get the priority.
Another thing I would say to people is don’t assume that your goal is a priority in your brain. Your brain may just have a cupcake priority. It may just be like, “My number one priority is to enjoy cupcakes.” I’m not saying that, but emotionally it’s embedded in your brain. So what you have to do is say, “Well, I think I need to prioritize this other goal,” and then go after that.
I’ll stop there, but summarize that the first step is to resolve goal intentions into implementation intentions. Make things more specific. Put it in a schedule. Number two, when you articulate your intentions speak to yourself with emotion that’s authentic. Number three, manage your goals rather than just setting them, because a goal has a life of its own and it will serve itself and not you.
Marc: When you say that about the selfish goal I think about how so many people over the years who I’ve encountered, they’ll have their weight loss goal and it usually means a number. I love questioning the number. Fascinating. You want to lose 25 pounds. Not 24. Not 21.5. You want to lose 25 pounds. Okay. Where does this number come from? That would put you at what weight? Okay, 120 pounds. When was the last time you weighed 120 pounds?
Then when we start to play around with where that number comes from, the person might be trying to weigh what they weighed when they were 16 years old, and they’re now 56 years old. Huh. Is the goal even doable? Is it reasonable?
Srini: Right. Absolutely. I think what this relates to is two other pieces of research that I think are interesting. One is that there’s another body of research that’s questioning whether we really need to be thinking in terms of what our goals are, or in terms of who we are.
What the brain research shows is if you say, “I have a goal. I want to lose 20 pounds,” we tend to focus on the want to lose 20 pounds. We forget about the “I”. Who wants to lose 20 pounds? Who is this person? Does this person really want to lose 20 pounds, and what does that mean to you? So the more we connect with who we are.
The way that I talk to people about this is that longterm memory in the hippocampus, which is just where memories are stored, has pictures. It’s like a museum. There are pictures of ourselves that are hung up in the museums of our minds. What we tend to do is we tend to ignore the fact that these pictures, some of them we didn’t even accurate. One is a picture of your teacher telling you, “You’re no good.” One is a picture of somebody else telling you, “You’re too fat.” One is a picture of somebody else telling you, “You’ll never get there.”
You don’t think about that consciously, but all of these pictures are hanging up in the memory banks, in the memory museum, of your brain. So before you even get to your goal, you really need to go into that museum and see what pictures you curated, and swap some pictures out for pictures that are going to actually help you with your goal.
That person was still keeping that picture of that relationship was traumatic. The story people will say is the relationship was traumatic. But the picture that’s hanging up is, I was useless. So you have an I was useless picture in your memory museum. You need to go back into the museum and say, “You know what, it’s time to get rid of you.” We’re curating a whole new set of pictures.
One of the things I will say to people related to what you’re saying is when you’re setting a goal it’s important for it to relate to who you are. Studies also show, and we talked initially about how do you remain committed to your goal, one of the ways is to actually develop an image that’s very powerful of what you want, because that image does also stimulate the motor cortex, which is the action center in the brain.
I won’t go into all of the details of how you construct an image, but it’s been shown by a lot of research, especially in sports people, that there’s a very particular eight or nine step process you can use to actually not just say I’m imagining myself 20 pounds lighter, because what is that? Is that an image? Is it a still picture? Is it a movie? Who’s 20 pounds lighter? What do you look like? Is it you?
A lot of times when people are imagining they want to be 20 pounds lighter, they’re imagining they want to transform into someone else. So the first thing I would say is when you’re constructing that image it needs to be real and about you. You need to believe that the thing that you’re after can happen now.
The question, for example, that comes up in this context is if you want to be a billionaire do you have to get a billion dollars before you can call yourself a billionaire, or do you start thinking like a billionaire now? So if you want to lose 20 pounds, do you think of yourself as someone who can lose 20 pounds only after you lose it? Or do you say, I’m going to think like a person who can lose 20 pounds? That person would make certain dietary choices. That person would make certain exercise choices. That person would make certain stress-related choices. We now know it’s not just about diet and exercise. It’s also about stress and the way that it impacts your weight. Neuropsychology plays a role in the outcome as it relationship as it defines the relationship between behavior, emotion, and cognition on the one hand, and brain function on the other.
Marc: That’s exciting for me because I also see so many times when I speak with people who are wanting to shape shift their body, they want it to look different, they want to lose weight, they want this part and less fat, whatever it is. When I ask the question who will you be when you have that result, how’s life going to be different, describe the new you, then they’ll describe the new you.
Generally speaking, it will be some combination of I’ll love myself more. I’ll be more engaged. I’ll be more out there. I’m having more fun. But meanwhile, the road that they’re choosing to take to get to that place is deprivation, or self-punishment, or I have to constantly tell myself that this body I have right now is no good and I hate this. I’m thinking to myself, how are you going to end up at a destination of self-love if the journey is filled with not self-love?
Srini: Yeah, that resonates very much. Another example I think of this is you see this a lot in people who call themselves alcoholics. People who are addicted to alcohol, they’ll go into a program and then they’ll stop drinking alcohol. But the psychology has not changed. It’s what we call dry drunks. It’s like you’re not drinking alcohol, but whatever the self-hatred was initially, you’re still carrying that through with you.
You see this a lot at the gym. If you watch. The next time you go to a gym, just walk past all the treadmills, just walk throughout the whole gym and look at people and assess the degree of self-love that exists there. There’s not a lot of it. It always makes me think. That’s not a reason not to work out. It’s a reason to work out differently. It’s a reason to say, do you really want to motivate yourself with hatred your whole life?
You’re like, “I hate myself. I’ve got to get to my goals.” Being reprimanding is fine. It’s like a tennis player being like, “Come on!” It’s motivating. But I think the idea that you need to hate yourself in order to look a certain way and then keep that hatred in.
Remember, emotions are processed and come through your brain, and your brain is connected to the rest of your body. There’s a reason that when you look at any list of causes of cancer, stress is always somewhere at the top. It’s not just some abstract thing. It’s that the feelings you feel and the emotions that you feel and the self-hatred that you’re feeling is all flooding your brain with all kinds of hormones and neuronal interactions that travel down the spinal cord and go to every other part of your body. Your heart cells, your hands, your legs, everything is being impacted by what’s going on in here. That’s not to say that it originates here, but at the very least we know it’s processing consciousness in some way.
So that’s the reason we now know that there are so many connections between the heart and the brain, the gut and the brain. If we look at the fact that gut bacteria, for example, the microbiome, have changed significantly in humans. They were evolving at a much slower pace in animals. In humans they suddenly started to evolve much faster and differently, and they started sending signals to the brain of anxiety and depression and problems thinking.
So when you’re thinking of yourself and your emotions and how you want to drive yourself, remember, all your different organs are connected. Getting rid of that belly fat means you have to consider what kind of brain state you want to have when you’re doing that. As you said, I think the brain state of selfhatred is probably not the kind of energy you want to put into your body.
Marc: In your work with patients, with clients, with humans, is self-love possible when you encounter a human who’s sitting before you struggling, wanting to figure out how do I shift this body so then I can love it?
Srini: It’s a paradox. I think my thoughts of this have evolved over time. I used to believe that a certain amount of self-acceptance gets really close to this place of self-love. I definitely don’t think that the usual periodical kind of, “Oh my god, I love myself,” I don’t know anybody who actually gets up every day being like, “I love myself!” It seems like an absurd state to be in.
I’ve had clients who come in saying things like, “Please don’t talk to me with this self-love thing. Love is for someone else to feel towards me. I don’t want to love myself. I think it’s dumb. It’s ridiculous.” I think deep down a lot of people feel like that’s difficult.
My current view on self-love is that self-love is about not chopping up yourself into pieces, into an observing self and an experiencing self, having a constant editor, but to experience a oneness of yourself and a oneness with the world. I think when you realize and you fit within this bigger picture, that’s when you get a sense of ecstasy.
That’s when you get a sense of well-being. It’s different from the kind of well-being that we associate with what we call hedonia. Hedonic responses are sex, drugs and rock and roll. One of the major problems is it’s short-lived.
The question is, how can we make it last longer? Studies now show that eudaimonia, which is well-being, which is about meaning and purpose, gets your brain’s reward center to activate much longer than sex, drugs and rock and roll. One of the things we want to do is how can we include more contemplation and conversations around meaning and purpose to create this feeling of well-being, and activate the brain’s reward center for a longer period of time.
I don’t want to say this abstractly, because I truly understand that there’s something dumb about thinking like that. I truly understand. You don’t get up in the morning and like, “What’s my meaning today? What’s my purpose?” So I’m not suggesting that.
I’m suggesting, can you take a half hour a week, just go to your favorite place, be alone, and ask yourself that question? Take some time and ask yourself, what in my life is aligned with my meaning? It doesn’t have to be somebody else’s meaning. I find these days a lot of people feel guilty about it. They feel like they want to start with I want a social service and I want to serve people. Forget about that. I’m just asking, what is your meaning and purpose?
If your meaning and purpose is having fun, then I’m going to ask you, does your life have components that are going to allow you to have fun? If your meaning and purpose is to serve others, then ask yourself, then how do you want to be served? Do you not want to be served? Why do you not want to be served? Don’t just go with a rote feeling about something. I think self-love comes from recognizing your needs, and then putting your needs in context, and then finding a relationship with the world where you can be in a dynamic interchange with the universe.
So my feeling about self-love I think covers two zones. One is this relational oneness with the world that I think really comes fundamentally from not constantly through seeing yourself as separate, in all these separate divisions. People who have multiple personalities are often a distinct example of this. I’ve got my this part and my this part, courageous part of my wild self and my introverted self. This is all one self.
So to the extent that we can do things to enhance this feeling of oneness, I think we really feel connected to the world. There are things you can actually do to do this.
Studies show that when people are synchronized, when our brains our synchronized, we have a greater feeling of well-being than when they’re not. So seeking synchrony in human relationships is a great start to how we can feel this self-love.
Marc: Let me fumble around here for a moment with this topic. There’s a question that I want to ask. It’s something to do with I’m putting myself in the shoes of so many of us who, “I love this part of myself and I don’t love that part of myself. Yeah, I love my hands. But I don’t love my biceps.” It’s like whatever it is. We get very conditional around the love. I will love myself when I lose these ten pounds and I look different, so until then the love is conditional.
I’m trying to resolve that with what you’ve just shared, this concept of a mission, of a purpose. It almost feels like there’s an impossibility. Who really loves their body unconditionally? Maybe there are people like, “I love every part of this.” There’s going to be things we don’t like. You could eat are your favorite restaurant and your best meal, and it there might be something that’s just not so. There’s always going to be this place where we don’t love. Is there still something that can contain that that’s a bigger love, I guess is what I’m asking here.
Srini: I think that as long as you’re observing yourself, keeping the observer alive and looking at this other part of yourself, I don’t think that love is possible. I don’t think you can actually feel love if you’re saying I love my body, because whatever that feeling is that you’re feeling I would then ask, who loves your body? Your brain loves your body. Okay, I get it. But I don’t feel like that creates the kind of happiness and love that people are after.
I think that one of the things to be aware of, one of the questions this begs is, what is the body? Is the body your ultimate reality, or is the body a vehicle so that you can experience a consciousness that is much greater than that? If you see your body as a vehicle, then you can change the vehicle. You don’t necessarily look at it as the ultimate truth, like I need to change this part to look like that and that becomes your absorption.
The idea is sculpting this vehicle to be able to channel whatever consciousness exists outside of us. By this I really mean we don’t have to get very New Agey about this. It’s just like if someone’s talking to you, the way in which you’re present when you’re talking to them, if you’re watching TV, the way in which you’re watching TV.
David Lynch, the movie director, talks about this in a cool way. He’s done transcendental meditation for a long time. He says if you look at the world with a golf-ball-sized consciousness, and you look outside your window, the world will appear to be the size of a golf ball. If you’re in a relationship and you have a golf-ball-sized consciousness, your relationship will be of that size.
But with transcendental meditation, which is one of his practices, and I’ll just say, from a research perspective mindfulness meditation has a lot of research backing it up these days as well, as you expand your consciousness you get away from my left arm and my bicep and my body. You get more into understanding that the world is so much larger than yourself. You take the focus off of yourself, and understand yourself as part of something larger.
So to answer your question, which is I think how do we get rid of the obsessions with specific self-hatred, I think you can joke about it, you can be aware of it. You can say, “Man, I have this thing and I just don’t like it.” or, “I don’t like how my hands look,” and that’s that.
Walker Evans, the photographer, captured this really beautifully. He took photographs of all kinds of people. He would show the hand of a farm laborer in black and white.
Most people when they think of how do I want my hands to look it’s like, did I have a manicure, do my hands look the way they’re supposed to look. This farm laborer didn’t have any manicure, but when you look at it you just fall in love with that hand because there’s something so real about it and something so present about it.
I think we’ve been misled in how we think we appreciate beauty and what we can get from it, because I think we live in a much more structural world and not in an integrated world. So I think the way someone’s hand looks––think about mothers feel about their children, or fathers feel about their children. Your child can look however. You can still feel the most amazing kind of love for them, and you genuinely feel that. Studies show that there’s a specific kind of nurturance.
So if you take that as a metaphor and you ask yourself, “Sure, so my hand doesn’t look like a model’s hand and my bicep doesn’t look like a model’s bicep. Is there a way I can be in the world to be my most beautiful self?” I think from my perspective that comes mostly from being interested in being real and self-connected, and to know that being real is not as easy as I’m making it sound. I don’t think you just become real in the world. For all intents and purposes, I’m being authentic. But I’m also not telling you my deepest, darkest secrets. I have a dark side, and I save it for places where I might feel safer.
But I think more and more as we feel integrated with all these different parts of ourselves, and as we feel like we can be more present in the world as ourselves without having to talk about it, just be it, I think you’ll find that even your hands feel different. I’ve seen this sometimes with––and again, it’s just that it’s biased in terms of the people that I’ve talked to.
Women who have done pottery, for example, if you look at their hands they have various kinds of hands, stemming from conventionally beautiful to fine. But when they’re in the moment of the pottery, their hands become these sense organs that receive the beauty of that experience, and every single person in that room feels like they have a model’s hands.
So I think what I’m saying is it’s not just what your body is, but what your body is to you and how you’re using it in the world. I personally don’t think there are any perfect answers to this. I just think the value of the kind of dialogue we’re having is to stimulate thoughts in people and say, to what extent do I need to forgive myself a little bit more? I’m way too harsh. Let me figure out one or two things where I can say that’s fine.
But secondly, do realize that beauty is not just about the structural element of a thing. I think all over the world, whether it’s landscapes, people, sculptures, works of art––if you think about how people appreciate Bob Dylan’s voice, for example, it’s not a conventionally melodic voice. But there’s something about his authenticity that when people love him they’re not saying, “Oh, he sings melodically like Christina Aguilera.” What they’re saying is there’s a guy and he’s sharing his real stuff with you, and it makes you feel real.
So I think that the body is an instrument that we can use to connect more deeply with our own sense of authenticity and reality. The more we do this, the more our concept of who we are will change. Because when you can’t change the external reality, and this is the beauty of the brain science, what you see is strongly determined by how you receive it by your brain. So if you change what’s receiving it, you will receive yourself differently.
Marc: Beautifully put, my friend. Words of wisdom for sure. I’d love to keep going on and on, and hopefully I will get to have more beautiful conversations with you. Meanwhile, I’d love to wrap up with a couple of questions. First, where do you want to see us go when it comes to what heals, when it comes to how we’re transforming ourselves?
When you look into your crystal ball, what do you see happening?
Srini: I personally have a much deeper respect for not knowing. I think that there’s a feeling of surrender in not knowing. Sometimes I tell people it’s a bit like floating in a pool on a hot summer’s day. It’s a feeling of trusting that if you are genuinely engaged with your journey, if you’re truly engaged, that your brain will take you to those questions that you need to answer to get somewhere.
I think that it’s less about making excuses or trying to look that way or trying to look this way, and more about opening up yourself to a life of questions. I think answers are great, but questions are the core drivers of discovery. I think that this whole field of better psychological health, better physical health, better eating habits, really has to do with asking more questions and being able to engage each other in these dialogues so that we can figure out for ourselves the changes that we want to make.
So I really think to the future as much more about dialogues around not knowing, and then having these kinds of structural approaches. Goal to intention, activate your left frontal cortex, those are cool techniques that come out of asking questions. But I think as long as we stay in question we’re on the right path.
Marc: Well put. Thank you. How can viewers and listener stay in touch with you, learn more about what you’re up to and engage more in your world? What should we know?
Srini: I would love to engage with the viewers. Our website is www.nbgselfhelp.com. You can also look me up, just one word, drsrinipillay.com. I would love for people to visit the site, tell us more of what they want. Maybe even tell us more about the kinds of conversations they’d like us to have, because I think for me the joy of this journey really is about collaboration. It would be great to be able to be in more conversations about this.
Marc: Srini, I so deeply appreciate your very heartfelt approach to the complex topics of being a human alive on human earth and having a brain, and wanting us to figure out what do we do with all this. I just so appreciate what feels like a very renaissance approach that you take. So thank you so much for your work.
Srini: Thank you very much, Marc. I really appreciate you as well.
Marc: Thank you, everybody, for tuning in. Once again, I’m Marc David on behalf of The Future of Healing Online Conference. I’ve been with Dr. Srini Pillay. Please check him out. Lots more to come, my friends.