Leadership calls for proper training and strategies to keep a team performing at its best and well-connected. And yet, this model can still be elevated to another level through Zen leadership. Dr. Diane Hamilton is joined by Dr. Ginny Whitelaw, Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership and President of Focus Leadership, to discuss how to achieve self-mindfulness by spending time on meditation, understanding the major patterns of leadership, and resonating with others according to their own wavelength. She also shares how her own leadership experience at NASA and getting a degree in Physics influence her current career focused on the energies in and around us.
Although music is mostly for entertainment, some people have found other beneficial purposes to it, especially when it comes to relaxing the mind and body. This is exactly what Jim Donovan did when he started connecting with people while being part of a band. The host of the Sound Health Podcast joins Dr. Diane Hamilton to share how this discovery led to creating a unique music procedure that helps everyone achieve mindfulness and healthier life. Jim also explains how this same concept can be used to trick your mind into falling asleep much easier and getting that well-needed REM sleep through rhythmical tapping and brain humming.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Ginny Whitelaw and Jim Donovan here. Ginny is the Founder and CEO for the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is formerly with NASA. She is an expert in resonation and Zen. We’re going to talk all kinds of things with mindfulness and so much more. Jim Donovan is a musician, wellness facilitator, author, podcaster, TEDx speaker. He is an expert on getting to sleep. If you haven’t seen his TED Talk, I recommend it. He’s also an expert in using music for wellness. We’re going to talk to both Ginny and Jim.
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Zen Leadership With Dr. Ginny Whitelaw
I am here with Dr. Ginny Whitelaw, who is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is a Zen master, as well as the President of Focus Leadership. She has quite a background with experience in leadership at NASA. This is going to be fascinating. Welcome to the show.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
I was looking forward to this. We have the interest in personality assessing in common. We have some of that. I know you’ve written many books. You’ve got a new one out, Resonate. I’m excited to know about that, but before we get into it, I want to know a bit of your backstory. To get into NASA alone is fascinating to me and then being a Zen master on top of it. Can you give me your backstory?
When I was a little kid, I used to look up at the stars like so many little kids. I wanted to go there. Going into space was the big thing when I was a kid and I wanted to be an astronaut so much. My parents encouraged me, even though at that time, little girls and women were not allowed to become astronauts, but my parents didn’t tell me that. I wrote NASA when I was fifteen years old saying, “What classes can I take in junior high school to best prepare me?” They wrote back and said, “It didn’t matter for junior high, but to take science and math.” By the time I got to college, I should major in Physics, Astrophysics or Aeronautical Engineering. They gave me a whole list. I followed that letter to the T. I took every science and math under the sun. I got a degree in Physics.When leaders lead for the sake of others instead of their ego, there's a bigness to it. Click To Tweet
I got interested in the energy of the human being and studied that in Biophysics. That’s what my graduate work was in. It started by taking night classes at college. Women on my campus were being attacked. They were starting to offer self-defense classes. I took one and I loved the teacher. She was a great martial artist and it got me into martial arts. When I went to graduate school, I couldn’t find that style, but I found a world-class Aikido teacher who pulled more out of me than I ever imagined. He also trained in Zen. He introduced me into Zen training saying, “If you want to reach the peak of your game, you have to start meditating.”
I trusted my teacher. I started doing that. Alongside the science came this deep physical training in Zen and Aikido. Those two streams followed me through the early part of my career. I eventually did go to NASA for ten years. I worked at NASA, but I went into management, not into space. I had applied to the program and I hoped getting in for a while, but I ended up finding my way in management and became the head of integrating the Space Station program, which got me interested in leadership and in taking leadership courses, which NASA was generous in bringing me into.
They were grooming me for senior leadership roles in the agency. I was starting to get introduced to how leadership was taught, including personality tests. I could see that they left out the body and from my deep training in the physicality, Zen and Aikido, I could see that the deep training of the dojo would be helpful for leaders and it wasn’t being taught. It became as back of the brainstem knowing on me that maybe this was my work, but I thought, “No, I’m supposed to be a scientist.” It wouldn’t let go. Eventually it became clear to me that I wanted to bring the mind, body and energy together in helping leaders develop. I left NASA in the mid-‘90s and have been doing that work since then.
There are many things that went through my head as you were saying all those things. Where did you go to school? Was it the Northwest during the Bundy time? I watched that show where they were doing all that self-defense training during Bundy’s situation back then.
No, this was in the Midwest. I did my undergraduate work at Michigan State. I did my graduate work at the University of Chicago. It’s ordinary circumstances, but still it had heightened our concern about needing to take care of oneself. That’s what initially got me into martial arts, but what kept me in it was what a deep path of training it is for the development of the human being.
It’s hard too. I never got past the white belt. I liked kicking the guy. It was something that took out a lot of aggression, but it was something I thought, “This is a lot harder.” It reminded me of taking dance or something where you have to follow something closely to do it correctly, that you had to take that seriously to be any good at it. I didn’t realize how much went into it until I took it. I’ve had a lot of people on my show who have become much interested in mindfulness and some of the things you’re talking about, even Daniel Goleman was on my show. I was excited to talk to him because of the emotional intelligence aspect from my background. He got into mindfulness since then.
I told him when I had him on the show, I wanted to catch up on his book. I was listening to it at double speed. It’s like, “Be calm. Do all these things.” I’m hearing him in double speed. The mindfulness thing to me went a little clearer to me because I’ve done the thing where you listen to your echo device in the morning. It pulls from the Calm app and I listen. It’s all about following the breath and that type of thing, being in the moment. I thought you had to get your brain completely empty. I guess that’s not a plausible thing. You keep having to drift and come back. Is that the stuff you’re talking about, trying to be in the moment?
Certainly, Zen training brings us into the moment in the sense that if in this moment now, we’re either paying attention to our senses and we’re here right now, or we’re lost in thought and lost it. Worries about the future or the past were in our head. There is a real physicality to Zen around coming into this moment and being here now. There’s also a sense of concentrating the mind. Normally the mind can jump around here and there, sometimes it’s called monkey mind. When we slow down the breathing, that breathing is a basic vibration in the body that can start to regulate and slow down even the rate at which thoughts develop. At certain frequencies, this is one of the things I wrote about in Resonate, you can get a coherence through the entire system where everything settles down.
It’s like an orchestra that comes into tune with itself. That condition is cultivated in meditation, but that to me is still the beginning. That’s huge. There’s a lot of the calmness or peace that people come to things like mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction for. That’s available in Zen as well. This training goes further to also help us see through the ego. We’re not only training the ego to be a little more coherent, but to see through it as not the ultimate statement of who we are. That quality is important in terms of leadership because it radically changes our net of concern as a leader. If leaders lead for themselves, for their own ego or to prove themselves or their own ambitions, there’s always a bit of a stink to it. When leaders lead for the sake of others, for the sake of the whole picture, the community or the better world, then there’s a bigness to it. When we put that quality of Zen of seeing through the ego to the wholeness of who we are together with leadership skill, we get a quality of leadership that is needed in the world now.
I teach many leadership courses still. We go through different case studies of the successful leaders. I’ve had Doug Conant on the show a couple of times, he turned around Campbell Soup because he was able to tap into what made people engaged. He cared about the big picture. We also study Ken Lay at Enron and even compare the differences of all this. It was interesting to me to look into all this for my work with curiosity and for perception. I used a lot of George Land’s talk in some of the stuff I do who did some work at NASA. Did you know him by chance?
I didn’t know him personally.
He looked at creativity and it mirrored what we saw with curiosity of how we peak around age five and then tank as we get older. It’s interesting to look at the things that we need to rebuild. Our curiosity, our creativity, and our perception are things that we all need to work on, and I could see that Zen thinking. Do you think it’s ties into our perception of reality and the world?
Very much so because you think about those words, curiosity and perception. We have to be in our senses to pick up on that stuff. We’re taking in new energy in those cases. I look at it from a physics point of view that energy is coming in through our senses. When we are curious, there’s an opening of our filters that permits more to come in as opposed to, “I don’t care so much. I already know the answer.” There’s an attenuation or a tamping down. We don’t take in as much. We operate out of our pre-existing biases. When we are wanting to be curious and perceptive, that state is opening up the apertures and in comes the present moment, in comes the energy, and now it can work on us. We can start vibrating with it. Depending on our own character, what is ours to create has a chance to come out, but if we don’t take the energy in, then we’re operating out of a past because that’s what we’re working with. We’re working with habits from the past.
One of the four factors that inhibit curiosity that I’ve found are the assumptions we make. That’s what that is. It’s that voice in our head, the things that we tell ourselves from the past, “We’re not going to like this. It didn’t work before. It was too much trouble.” You think about all that. I am interested in how you tied in all these things you’ve learned into your book. I know your book The Zen Leader was super successful. You’ve got many great books. Resonate came out in 2020. You also co-developed the FEBI which measures the four patterns of personality to connect body and mind, and essential leadership behaviors, and trains practitioners worldwide in this. I know you do that. I do something similar with my work with curiosity. I want to find out what you do. Is that tied into your book with Resonate or was that before you created that FEBI?
All of the work ties together. The FEBI was generated before that. The second book I wrote is called Move to Greatness. It was what elucidated the energy patterns and develop that with a coauthor Betsy Wetzig who taught me about these patterns. These are patterns in how our nervous system functions. They hide the physicality of the human being to care with our emotions, as well as our thought processes and behaviors. It becomes a much more integrated way to look at personality and at the different modes of behavior. Why I say modes of behavior is that we have preferences just like you and I sitting here now have handedness. There’s a certain hand we want to pick up the pen with. We still have two hands. The same is true in terms of how these patterns operate in us.
We have intrinsic preferences. Those preferences are for better and worse, measured in any personality test one would take. We also have access to all four patterns. There are four basic ways the nervous system can operate, and you can think of it on a spectrum between whether in a sense the flexor side, the brake side of the body goes first, or the extensor side, the engine side goes first. There are different ways of regulating the order which nerves for your muscles. You might think that’s esoteric, but it has everything to do with the emotions, thought processes, and behaviors as well. The patterns of leadership would show up, to tie it to things like curiosity and perception, it’s this wide openness.
I’m open and curious about world. It involves a lot of lateral thinking, a lot of extensor side energy, a lot of openness that is not only open of mind but open of body. We call a pattern the visionary. At the other extreme, things are attenuated down. If you push your fingers together, push your hands together, you’ll notice peripheral vision starts going away, vision and focus both of mind and of eyesight becomes central and intense. We start entering a pattern called the driver, which is good about getting one thing done, but it can get blindsided. In between our two other patterns, the organizer and the collaborator, these are part of how we resonate. They’re in the Resonate book. They’re also part of how we manifest energy. They’re part of Zen Leader as well. They’re a part of how we show up in the world. When we know this framework and we know how to move into each pattern, we can be more intentional about bringing out the right energy at the right time.
I had originally been trained in the Myers-Briggs method years ago. A lot of that was interesting to me because you found out where you got your energy and what things motivated you, and what you are doesn’t change over time unless you’re near the middle of the spectrums. I was extreme on my responses to everything. I wasn’t anywhere near the middle which was interesting to me. In these four patterns, can we change them?
We can change our access to them. I know you’re also an expert in emotional intelligence. It’s that same thing that once we have the awareness, we can self-regulate around which pattern we need now. We can build comfort in a pattern. It will never be our favorite to pattern if we have strong preferences, but as you noticed in other assessments like Myers-Briggs, we can be differentiated or we can be near the center. We’ll see the same dynamic in the FEBI. You can have a strong and clear home pattern. You can be also ambidextrous in terms of your use of it. Can we change? My fourth pattern, my weakest pattern is still my weakest pattern.
Which is it? I want to know.If a situation arises spontaneously, you can put out your best effort. Click To Tweet
It is a pattern I didn’t mention, but it’s called the collaborator. It’s a people oriented, playful, fun pattern. It’s still my weak pattern, but I know now what it’s good for. I value it and I am more intentional about when I need to use it. It’s been hugely important for me to know that so that I know when to use it. Unconsciously, we sometimes don’t favor a pattern, we might even have an attitude against it like, “I don’t like people like that. That seems frivolous to me.” I was such a serious little kid with all my dreams and ambitions. You didn’t go out to play until you got your homework done. That attitude followed me a lot into adulthood. If you can’t learn how to play, you’re going to exhaust people.
That’s funny because I have another course I teach where we talk about the value of play. My father made us play like everything was a game. At the dinner table, we’re playing school. There wasn’t any game we didn’t own. Everything was a play. It’s interesting to see the different spectrums. It made me curious to play because everything was a competition in the games. You didn’t want to lose. We all went into sales.
That’s a good driver, “I’m going to play at winning.”
We had to play at winning. It’s fascinating to see one of the four things that impacts curiosity is your environment, your parents, your family, your background, your friends, your teachers, all those things. The reason I found it fun and interesting to create a personality assessment was I wanted to find out what stopped us from doing certain things and how to fix it. When I taught the Myers-Briggs classes, what was most interesting to me was when they would explain not what I was, but what the opposite of me wanted. They would have you stand on one side of the room, then the opposite people would stand on the other side of the room and they go, “Who likes this?” The whole other side of the room would put their hands up and we’d all look at each other like, “Why?” You need that so you build empathy. What you’re doing is trying to get people to seek more knowledge. I want to know, in your book Resonate, why the name? What does it means? I know what it means, but what did you mean when you say this as the title? What are we going to get from your book?
To build off of what we were talking about, we’re used to thinking about things like empathy and how we are. What I wanted to do in Resonate is pull out the essential principle, which is to resonate is to vibe with. It seems simple when you go, “Why is it interesting?” It’s when we can get vibrating with other people that we have empathy with. When we can get our energy to match the conditions, it’s like surfing a wave, things go better. When we can work with the larger forces around us by sensing the energy of a condition and then matching it and working with it, we’re able to have a greater impact. This way of being and how we resonate as human musical instruments is a lot of what Zen training is.
It helps open up because it’s going to drop away tension, constriction and disintegration, places within us that are all balled up so that we’re able to function cleanly and clearly with who we are. That simple state is in a way, the easiest way to lead. We say, “Effort is effort. If a situation arises spontaneously, you can put out your best effort.” It’s the most challenging to arrive to because it requires the sincerity to root out what gets in the way. What gets in the way is tension, trauma, and all the ways that we get in our own way. The subtitle is called Zen and the Way of Making a Difference. As we clear out, integrate, tune and tame our mind-body system, we become our most resonant self. As we go through our life, what is ours to do will naturally vibrate with it. It will run through us and out will come our creativity and our greatest difference.
What would it help me do if I was reading this and taking the assessment? What would I find out? Would it change what I do for a living? Would it change how I look at what I do for a living? What’s the outcome?
I always encourage people, even if they read the book, we also have an online course in Resonate in February 2021, to come in with a concrete thing about what you want to do. What are you up against in your leadership? What are you trying to do with your work now? What’s a challenge in your team or in your company? There’s a concrete thing to focus on and being able to work with yourself as an instrument. How can you become more integrated and whole in yourself? Settle down so you can focus correctly. How can you use the right energy at the right time? These energy patterns we were talking about? How can you get your ideas to resonate with others? Being able to read where people are, hit their vibration, and get on the same wavelength. We have it in our language, but I wanted people to appreciate this is not metaphorical.
We do get on the same wavelength with people when we connect with them and when we have a truly empathetic conversation with people. These are some of the applications we explore in the book. How you can strengthen your relationships? How you can build your team stronger, get into a more group synchronized state, or a flow state? How can you achieve your goals and ideas? How that challenge that you’re focused on now could come together better through how you connect with others or realize that goal? It all relates to building resonance. That’s the job of leadership. Leaders are always taking ideas, which is a form of energy into things that matter. In that process, we build ideas by getting little waves to build bigger. Helping people understand that principle so they can master it through themselves is the point of the book.
It’s a time when everybody’s trying to lead in unique ways because of the crisis situation. Everybody’s looking for different ways to improve. Trying to work virtually has been a challenge. Have you had people come to you and ask you how to do that and how does Resonate help with that?
Since March 2020, we’ve had to do all of our training online at the Institute for Zen Leadership. Even our Zen training, we finished an intensive Zen training. It is fascinating to me how much energy transfers online. It has shown us because we’re used to doing these trainings together in person. Having an intense experience together, you go, “That was intense. We got to go away for a weekend.” Now we’re in our homes, we’re in our respective places, but the human connection, you can tell when people are locked into a deep meditation. You can tell when a group is strongly connected in a conversation. We’re seeing this again and again in our trainings where you see the power of energy because it’s now separated. That’s what the virtual world is doing to us. Our material bodies are not together but our energy is together. You start to see the power of that energy and what happens when it starts adding up.
People will end up being happier and working better together. I’m thinking of everything we’ve talked about. I want to go back a little bit to your interest in NASA and the astrophysics. What did you learn working at NASA that had you in this direction? Did you see a sense that those astronauts could tap into something unique or were a unique personality type and it’s their selves? I’m curious what you learned from that.
Even as a kid, I had sensed that the astronaut role was one of these rules that integrated mind and body. You had to be incredibly physically fit and capable but also smart. The astronauts that I had the privilege to meet were indeed extraordinary people. That held true. The biggest learning that I gained from NASA, there was a deep learning about my own life. Professionally, what I learned was a great deal about leadership. I was working on the Space Station. I was leading the integration of it. This was across four different space agencies and 42 contractor teams, and a huge project involving thousands of people. What I could see is that the leadership and the teamwork was going to matter more than even the engineer in terms of the quality of what we flew.
That’s what got me interested in leadership because we were going through program managers and not making progress, and this person gets fired, and that person gets replaced. From the position I had, I could see we were opening up issues faster than we were closing them. If we kept this up, we wouldn’t fly anything. I started making noises about that and eventually was asked to solve it, which was a huge learning curve for me. I had to learn everything possible about leadership and integrated teams. Eventually, we’ve installed a different model of leading that we’re using integrated product teams that was useful in starting to bring the program together. There were a lot of other factors and a lot of other people involved. I don’t want to make this sound like, “It was just me,” not at all. That was a big learning for me. The importance of leadership in building the resonance that lets big things happen, and then getting teams integrated around a common purpose with a diverse skill mix that can bring in a part of the project. This sense of an integrated product team.
Did you happen to see The Crown? Did you see the scene with the astronauts when they brought in Neil Armstrong and they were up? I thought it was an interesting look at perception. The Queen’s husband was thinking, “This is going to be the greatest thing ever to meet these astronauts.” They’re thinking, “He’s the greatest thing ever.” Our perception of what we are or what we aren’t and what others are, the whole personality field I find fascinating. I was looking forward to having you on the show because what you do is important. Any of this, if we ever need to be in a state of Zen where we can feel a little bit better and work more effectively. Everything that you work on was inspiring. A lot of people are going to want to know how they could find you, get your books, and follow everything that you’re doing. Do you have a website or something you’d like to share?
Thank you for that, Diane. For the programs based on Zen Leadership and Resonance, you can go to, ResonateTheBook.com and you’ll learn about the book, and also an online course that we’re starting in February 2021, on Resonate could be helpful to people. ZenLeader.global for others in leader programs of how we’re bringing this physicality of Zen into leadership skills for leading out of a different sense of self, leading for the whole picture.
That looks like you’ve got some amazing stuff on your site because I was checking out some of the stuff you’re doing. This was so much fun, Ginny. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you, Diane. I appreciate this time with you and your work in the world.
Sleeping Through Sound With Jim Donovan
I am here with Jim Donovan who uses natural benefits of sound music and rhythm to help people live healthier lives. As a musician and wellness facilitator, he’s led over 3,000 national and international sound healing events since 1995. He does everything from being an editor at Sound Health Newsletter to the host of Sound Health podcast. He’s a professor at Saint Francis University and he had a great TED Talk, a TEDx presentation titled How to trick your brain into falling asleep, which I’m excited to hear about since I can’t sleep. It’s nice to have you here, Jim.
I feel great to be here. Thank you.Leaders are always taking ideas, which is a form of energy, into things that matter. Click To Tweet
This is interesting and you’re welcome. I am fascinated with sound, music, and different things. My daughter was one who liked to sleep with a bit of music, and it would help her sleep. For me, I start getting patterns in my head and I start singing the songs, I have a love-hate thing with music. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. I want to know, how did you get into music, and the benefits of music, sound, and rhythm? I want to get a little backstory on you.
I’ve always loved music. I always wanted to play it. I came from a poor background. There weren’t any instruments or lessons or anything like that until well into high school when I can get them for free. I’ve found that drumming was my first love. It gave me an outlet that I needed as a teenager. I loved it so much that I realized this is what I want to do with my life. Fast forward, I went to college. I was trained classically at the University of Pittsburgh. I met people that we would go on to form a band called Rusted Root. We toured all over through the ‘90s. 1990 until 2005 was when I was with them. We had a couple of platinum records and we’ve played with all my heroes, guys like Carlos Santana and The Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, all these people that I grew up listening to. We got to share stages with them for many years. We did amphitheaters through the summer. Our band, for those of you who aren’t familiar, we had a song called Send Me On My Way that you would have heard in the first Ice Age movie, or you might have heard it in the Matilda movie, the little kid’s movie.
When I was with them, we are a drum-heavy band. Positive music made people dance. We were playing night after night and people would come up after the show and say, “I don’t know what you did, but something changed. I cried, I felt ecstatic, I felt connected.” I would hear these words and these responses from people for years. They would all say similar things. It made me wonder like, “What’s happening?” There are many people having the same experience. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t study much of the science of it back then. Fast forward through that career, my wife and I had kids. I decided to get off the road and I landed at a university. A friend of mine created a position for me. This is called Saint Francis University. I’m still there. To be at a university, you have to know what the heck you’re talking about with regards to the data and the research.
You can’t speak anecdotally to college students, nor should you. I set out to answer some of these questions. What is happening when people experience music? What happens when they’re dancing? What’s happening specifically in the brain? What happens when they sing or they chant? Those answers have become the core of what I do. I teach to people. I train people how to facilitate music and wellness events. These are appropriate for people who are non-musicians. That’s what makes what I do pretty unique. It’s based on the ideas of using the elements of music, the elemental rhythm, basic sound that you either create with your voice or that you simply listen to.
What I found is that it’s easy for about anybody to use these elements to help themselves feel better, to help them regulate their nervous system, to help them slow down the speed of their brainwaves at night so they can get the heck to sleep. I fill a niche between having nothing and full-on music therapy, which I’m not a music therapist. My Masters is Educational Leadership. I am teaching people how to use what’s already in them or the elements that are already in the system as it were to feel better.
I love the movie Whiplash, you probably liked that one. My dad was a drummer of sorts. He was born blind and he couldn’t do many different things but he was draw to them. He stood in for a guy named Gene Krupa. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him. That was a highlight of his life.
I bet that is a big deal.
He was always tapping his hand on everything. Drummers are always tapping, are you always tapping?
I was that guy and that kid. I’m still like that, but I found other ways to occupy my brain to use the energy.
In your song, you mentioned Ice Age and all that. It’s the first song on Mars when they woke up?
NASA picked it out. The way I learned of it was on the Wikipedia.
It’s amazing what you can learn on Wikipedia. I found myself on Wikipedia once. I didn’t even know it was on there. You never know what you’re going to learn on there, but that’s amazing that you’re getting so much attention for your work. If you’ve learned from music and you’re using it towards health and wellness benefits. How do you deal with it with mindfulness, meditation, and self-awareness though?
They all play together. The techniques that I teach people fast track one’s ability to get their mind clear so that they can sit in a nice meditation or that they can get deep into a prayer if that’s what they want to do. This idea that we are at the mercy of our mind shatter is something as I work with people, I realized that many folks accept the fact that their brains are always running it on. What they learn is that’s not your normal state, that’s an escalated state.
It keeps a lot of us distracted because it’s like you have a bunch of radio stations on your head at the same time sometimes for me, at least. I’ve tried the mindfulness meditative ways to focus on breath. Are you focusing on breath? Are you focusing on sounds, rhythm or music? What are you helping people do?
It’s a bunch of those things, depending on which technique we work with. For somebody like me, my brain is always on. I love my brain. It does great stuff for me, but sometimes I needed to calm it. We use breath, but we’re also adding things to it like rhythm, specific sounds with specific vowel sounds. It’s like a guided visualization along with the music and breathing. There are all these different combinations that you can do depending on what’s going on.
We used to hear you do different things like that. You have something you call 30 seconds of brain humming. What is 30 seconds of brain humming about?
It’s the simplest thing in the world. Some people have seen the picture of it on Facebook. We had a big campaign in 2020. I’m holding my hands over my neck and I’m making these elongated humming sounds. It sounds like weirdo, hippie stuff, which it is okay, except when you look at and understand what’s happening underneath your hands. Attached to your brain and going right over your larynx and down into every one of the organs in your body is this important nerve called the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve, for those of you who are unfamiliar, you can think of it the most elaborate superhighway moving from your brain down through all the major functions in your body.
Information goes from the brain down into the gut, and then back up from the gut into the brain. They communicate. If you hum and you hold your hands on your neck, you can feel vibration. That vibration stimulates the vagus nerve. When that happens, cool effects begin. The first thing is that it helps to tell your body to produce chemicals that make you feel good, specifically endorphins, which everybody knows. This stuff called nitric oxide, which is an antiviral and anti-inflammatory. Oxytocin, which is a bonding hormone among other things. A brain chemical called acetylcholine and all those things. You could measure the blood before and after and see a rise in those chemicals in the system.
They first chemically make you feel good, but what’s happening is that when you stimulate the vagus nerve, it helps to bring online your parasympathetic nervous system. The part of you that’s in charge of resting and digesting. The simple way I explain it is that you’re vibrating a switch, that switch turns on, and you de-escalate yourself, and you come back to your center point. Probably a lot of the readers out there know when you’re in homeostasis, when you’re in your zone in that nice center point, that’s when you tend to be the most effective. That’s when you tend to make the best decisions. We don’t tend to make good decisions when we’re escalated.
I was a pharmaceutical representative for a long time, and I remember all the training on the parasympathetic versus sympathetic systems. The sympathetic to me was you get that fight or flight response. You’re that hyped up and you want to calm it down with the parasympathetic like in the ballpark. Is that how those work?
Yes. They push and pull on each other. You need both, they’re important. Especially now with all that’s going on, many of us are living most of the hours of the day and unfortunately through the night in sympathetic response. We’re having all these awful sleep troubles and as a result, people turn to chemicals that help them sleep but don’t help them be healthy.
When Michael Jackson was taking Diprivan, that’s when they knock you out. You’re not getting REM sleep and that doesn’t even seem you’d feel good when you’d wake up because it doesn’t seem it’s doing the healing of what sleep would do. I almost don’t even understand that. I understand the other sleeping aids because they put you to a sleep state, but I don’t think being knocked out for anesthesia is something that would be restorative.Material bodies are not together in a virtual world, but the energy is together and adding up. Click To Tweet
It isn’t at all. This is the false information that we don’t even realize that we’re doing. When we’re in the sympathetic state, it’s the body’s producing stress chemicals, cortisol and adrenaline in particular. What’s happening is that when you’re going to bed stressed and then waking up stressed and that’s your cycle, that’s called chronic stress. What that’s showing is that your body likely has an excess buildup of cortisol. Unfortunately, when that happens, the cortisol is a source of energy that needs to be burned through movement. When it’s not burned, it eats away at muscle tissue, eats away at your brain, and does all kinds of harm to the organism. Over time it leads to the biggest diseases that we don’t want to be dealing with.
They’re always trying to reduce my cortisol because I’m right on the list of what you’re talking about. One thing they tried for me was ashwagandha, which I would never do again. They’re going, “This will be nothing. It will make you feel great.” I felt horrible. I like natural anything or I don’t have to take something because I don’t respond like normal people do to medications. Let’s say I’m trying to fall asleep and I’m in my fight and flight responses, the sympathetic response, and my vagal nerve stimulation is not working properly, what should I be doing at night to sleep better?
There are a couple of things. One is I always tell anyone that works with me that’s important that you prepare yourself for sleep before laying down. What I mean by that is to not do things that are going to be counterproductive like watching a suspenseful movie, nicotine, alcohol, even though alcohol knocks you out, it’s the same deal.
Too much of it will wake you right back up.
You don’t get the REM sleep and the body doesn’t do its restorative stuff. You have to prepare yourself first.
Always go to bed at the same time, all that stuff is important. How about the mind part? How do you shut the mind?
Once we are prepared, the thing that I taught people do in my TED Talk called How to Trick Your Brain into Falling Asleep is to use rhythm. This probably sounds weird to some folks, but if you try it out, you might be a little surprised. You tap your hands right, left, softly on your legs.
The rhythm of a good drummer too. I like that. My dad would appreciate that.
I’m tapping at a rate of about four taps per second and I’m slowing my breathing down.
Instead of focusing on breath, you’re focusing on hands.
I’m double-dipping. I’m getting my brain focused on the hands, breathing slowly, but what happens is there is a phenomenon in the brain called entrainment. Anytime you’ve tapped along the music, you’ve been “entrained.” What we do is we tap. For some people, you might need to do it for 3, 4 minutes. Other people can get the effect in 30 seconds. What we’re doing is helping the brain to connect with a rhythm and then at the end of the tapping, when you start to feel a bit tired, is that you slowed down. I’m tapping about four taps a second, and then over about 30 seconds I slow the tapping down, and then slow it down again. What happens is that the brain will follow that rhythm. The brain waves react to all of that and begin to slow down. When they do, you’ve prepared your brain to get into that first stage of sleep.
I have tried a lot of different things and its distraction that works the best for me. That’s what you’re saying. You’re with it. You get the song in your head. It’s funny the ones that get me the most are advertisements on television. They’re catchy for a reason and you can’t stop singing them. For me, not having any shows on at night that play advertisements helps me a lot. I tried a lot of the things like you’re talking about. One thing that helps me is to put on a show that I’ve heard a million times, a television show on my iPad that’ll turn off in twenty minutes or whatever. You don’t want something on that’s going to wake you up later. It’s the distraction factor that a lot of people don’t try that. Whether it works with breathing or tapping or putting something different in your head is what I find critical. What do you do with this if you get to the end of the tapping and you’re still wide awake, what’s the next step?
You go longer. The trick is that you don’t tap hard. It’s not like you’re drumming, you’re tapping super lightly and you’re breathing slowly, and you keep doing it. This is the thing that people get a little tripped up on it. It’s not like going to a convenience store and getting you a made for you sandwich and it’s automatic. You have to take a bit of time and stay with it. Don’t give up if it doesn’t work in 30 seconds. I’m someone who’s had anxiety for as long as I can remember, but I have it in check now because I understand how to regulate myself with things like this. Some days when I’m having a bad day with anxiety, I might have to sit there or lay there for ten minutes and tap and keep bringing myself back. Especially if I want to stop. That’s the key that tells me, “You need to keep this going because you’re still escalated.”
Sometimes you think things work and then sometimes they don’t. I could fall asleep to a certain television show, but then if I wake up in the middle of night, I put on a different book on tape that I’ve listened to. For me, it’s something I know I’m not waiting to find out what happens because I’ve already read it or heard it a million times. It was interesting the first time, but not after 500 times. You’ve heard it many times that you could recite it.
Any stimulation that you give the brain tends to give it the message that it’s still time to stay awake. Something “boring” like just tapping, eventually, if everything starts to calm, you don’t have to worry about shutting anything off. It’s just you. This is the key to the things that I teach. All this stuff is already built into you.
People sometimes give up too quickly. You got to try things for a while. They make it seem too easy in the books. They’ll go, “Go to bed at the same time every night and have a cool room.” They give you 2 or 3 things. “Now what? It doesn’t work.” Those things are critical. I don’t ever answer my phone after certain time of night because talking on the phone to people gets me too riled up even if we’re not talking about anything exciting. I’ve got to learn the things that work. I like the idea of this. A lot of people can learn. You also wrote a book, Saved by Sound: One Musician Story of Illness and the Healing Sounds that Saved Him and Drum Circle Leadership. You’ve done many different things. A lot of people are going to want to follow you and learn more because I did see your TED Talk. It’s been a bit since you signed up, but I watched it right away. I thought it was great. I hope people check that out. If they wanted to follow you, is there some link or something you like to share?When you're in a nice center point, you tend to be the most effective and make the best decisions. Click To Tweet
If you go to, DonovanHealth.com, I have a signup page right there on the front page. I’ll give you a free copy of a book I wrote called Whole Life Sound Healing. It’s got exercises in it and the research, all that good stuff. I’m on Facebook, @JimDonovanSoundHealth. I’m on Instagram, YouTube, all those places.
Thank you, Jim. This was interesting and I appreciate you being on the show.
You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here and for the opportunity. I hope everybody out there take good care of themselves.
I do too.
I like to thank both Ginny and Jim for being my guest. We have many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can them at, DrDianeHamilton.com. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode.
- Jim Donovan
- Institute for Zen Leadership
- TED Talk – How to trick your brain into falling asleep
- Focus Leadership
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- The Zen Leader
- Move to Greatness
- Sound Health – Apple Podcasts
- Drum Circle Leadership
- Whole Life Sound Healing
- @JimDonovanSoundHealth – Facebook
- Instagram – Jim Donovan
- YouTube – Jim Donovan Sound Health
About Dr. Ginny Whitelaw
Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is the. A Zen Master in Rinzai Zen, she combines deep, physical training with a rich scientific background, senior leadership experience at NASA, and over 25 years coaching and developing leaders. A recognized expert in developing the whole leader, she is the author of 4 books, including her latest, Resonate (2020). She also co-developed the FEBI®, which measures 4 patterns in the nervous system connecting mind, body and behaviors and trains practitioners worldwide in using FEBI in their work.
Dr. Whitelaw has coached and trained leaders in Columbia University’s Senior Executive Program and in some of the world’s top companies, including Merck, Novartis, JNJ, HP, Dell, Mercer, Hillrom, T Rowe Price and Bank of America. During her 10 years at NASA, she led the integration of the International Space Station, for which she received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal. She holds a Ph.D. in Biophysics, a B.S. in Physics and a 5th-degree black belt in Aikido.
About Jim Donovan
Jim Donovan M.Ed. uses the natural benefits of sound, music, and rhythm to help people live healthier lives. As a musician and wellness facilitator, Jim has led over 3,000 national and international sound healing events since 1995.
He’s editor of the Sound Health newsletter, host of the Sound Health podcast, and is a professor at Saint Francis University. Jim has shared his exclusive methods with millions of people around the world through a host of new revolutionary online sound healing tools and therapeutic audio products.
His TEDx presentation titled “How to Trick Your Brain into Falling Asleep” has been viewed over 4 million times and his Sound Health newsletter has over 36,000 daily readers.
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