S2E11 Flexibility and Freedom

How do we move towards creating more space and freedom in our lives? In this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss a favorite topic on WEMW: flexibility. While you might know from other episodes that psychological flexibility is highly correlated with psychological well-being, you may not have considered how practicing flexibility is a gateway to connecting with more freedom in your life. Tune in to learn more about how these two concepts can help us move towards our values and building the lives that we want for ourselves.




Nikki: Pete today we're going to talk about two concepts that are related that we have sprinkled in, and so many episodes here. Hi, Pete.

Pete: Hey.

Nikki: Hi, So today we're talking about flexibility and freedom….

Pete: Love it.

Nikki: And the relationship between those two. And I'm sure maybe some people clicking on this episode are like, “What? That's very vague or very broad,” though I think they're pretty important concepts that I hope will be impactful to those listening today.

Pete: I think this is great. I mean maybe this is the product of some mindfulness practices, like maybe…

Nikki: Yeah,

Pete: Like how you’re packaging this?

Nikki: Well, I'll say a little piece here and then I would love to go into what you're talking about right now with why mindfulness is relevant. So as we say over and over again here, Flexibility is something that we're trying to shape from a third wave CBT lens, Right?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: We know from loads of research here that the more psychologically flexible we are and by the way that includes, when we say psychological flexibility, we're also really kind of encompassing in what we do behaviorally, Right?

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: The more flexible we can...

Pete: And think, I mean we also…

Nikki: Yeah and think, it's like all the things…

Pete: It’s cognitive, it’s behavioral…

Nikki: Yeah, so the more we can kind of like, for better [inaudible 1:41] say like, roll with the punches kind of thing, right? The more psychologically flexible we are the better our psychological well-being is, basically like, overall…

Pete: Who doesn't want that?

Nikki: Yeah, who doesn't want that? And then the inverse is true. So the more rigid we are, the more psychologically inflexible, that's highly correlated with psychopathology. So things like mood disorders, anxiety disorders, etc, right?

Pete: Anxiety, depression.

Nikki: Yeah. So flexibility is something that we're constantly trying to help people move towards, to roll with the punches. And the thing that Pete and I have been sprinkling in here and there and why we were like, “okay, we need an episode on this”, is that, the more we're able to practice flexibility, there is a freedom that tends to show up in how we live our lives. And we talk a lot about values and our ability to make choices that are aligned with our values, as opposed to making choices that are based in fear or doing what feels comfortable. So that's my little setup here. So I'm going to now link it back to what you're saying a moment ago, and say, so like, how, how does this come out of mindfulness, Pete, like, how do you think these [inaudible 2:52]?

Pete: Well, neurologically, I mean, so I will probably sprinkle upon a bunch of the different research, but neurologically, we know that the practice of mindfulness meditation creates new neural pathways. It create more dense matter in our tissue in our brain tissue. So those things will lead to a different way. So what I'll say for listeners is like, our neurons are like highways in our body. And so like each highway, you get from point A to point B. And so if someone says, I don't like point B, for me, naturally might be like, fight. And then now with these practices, I might create a new way of getting there, which says, accept,

Nikki: Like a new neural connection,

Pete: A new neural connection that says, I don't have to respond to somebody. And I think for me, that's always the vision I have. When you talk about flexibility, I actually like see if anyone's ever been to the body exhibit. Did you ever go there when you were in New York?

Nikki: Oh, yeah. Well, I went in LA.

Pete: Oh, my bad. Before you got here?

Nikki: Yeah. You mean the one where like, they have the cadavers?

Pete: Yeah, show all the bodies?

Nikki: Yeah, yes, I know.

Pete: How long has that been around for?

Nikki: A long time, before I moved to New York I saw it here.

Pete: Oh Okay. Yeah, so like, if anyone's ever seen that, any listeners, you'd know that the neuron, the neurological cadavers, like really fascinating.

Nikki: So yes. Amazing. I love that using the imagery, because I also like to imagine…

Pete: That’s exactly what I see when I think flexibility,

Nikki: Same

Pete: That's my point, is that I see those neuro pathways, I see that cadaver. Yeah.

Nikki: Well, and so yeah, and what you're saying here is that we know from a western science perspective, that practicing mindfulness literally grows more of those, grows more neural pathways. And then also we've mentioned this, this is where my, I get extremely geeky about it. You also literally grow neurons, brain cells, that's a pretty big deal. Just like we've said before on this podcast, like lifting weights, you'll increase muscle mass cells in your muscles, so you literally grow neurons. Though how about from like an Eastern perspective, how do you think that these… that concept?

Pete: Oh, is that what I'm supposed to talk about?

Nikki: Yeah, no, we talk about both.

Pete: I like…

Nikki: Starting with flexibility because I want to, we can move into freedom in a moment.  

Pete: Well, I would say that flexibility would revolve around our last episode, our previous episode of middle path. It's this idea of not being an extreme. Flexibility requires that I have to like say, ‘acknowledge I don't agree with you and still do what you want to do’,

Nikki: Yeah,

Pete: Type of thing, and that's flexibility. So in the east, it's just natural to the behavior. I think sometimes it's a little triggering for some folks, because I'd be like, and I am this way, like, “where do you want to go eat?” “I don't know, where do you want to go eat?” “What do you want eat?” “I don't know, what do you feel like eating?” Because that creates this flexibility of like, we can go wherever you want to go, like a meal is a meal. It's about the moment it's about spending time with someone that we want to be with. But the food is a secondary,

Nikki: Right. There's no, again, no one right way to do things, no one right way to be. Yeah. And I think…

Pete: What do you always say like, no absolute truth.

Nikki: Yeah, there's no one absolute truth in the world. No one universal truth. Sorry.

Pete: No one universal truth.

Nikki: Yes, no one universal truth, yeah. Well, and I'll add to that, and this is, I don't think it's a metaphor I've ever shared with you, Pete, well, maybe. Watch, I’ll probably said it to you, and you're like, “Oh, I know that one”.

Pete: I've already used, but go ahead.

Nikki: Yes. Well, so, like flexibility is also not only is it, obviously associated with psychological well-being we're talking about new neural pathways. It's also, it's stronger, it's stronger than rigidity. And the metaphor that I like to use, and this is going to be a little non-environmentally friendly, so my apologies ahead of time, is I want you to think about a pencil and a plastic straw. So pencil, like, on the outside is going to seem like the stronger material. But the thing is, and we've all [inaudible 7:02] done this, especially elementary school, you can snap it pretty easily. So even though it's hard, it doesn't have a lot of give, it's going to break.

Pete: It'll break down, yeah.

Nikki: A plastic straw on the outside seems very flimsy, but guess what, you can tie up those suckers like, I mean, again, from a sad point from environment, the plastic doesn't break down. But you can…

Pete: That’s what I was just thinking about like the decomposing, like I was thinking.

Nikki: Yeah. Which is why I was like, “sorry, guys”. Sorry, but this metaphor, everyone go with me on that. That it doesn't break that even though on the outside, it seems flimsier, it's actually much stronger than the rigid pencil. And I think that's a concept that a lot of folks have a hard time, integrating that flexibility is actually the stronger position.

Pete: Yeah, well, I was just reminded to in the east, we would talk a lot about identity flexibility. So now you're talking about the outside and the inside. That made me think of that, because, and I think I often preach this to students and just to my clients of like, when I die, all my accomplishments, my titles, my identity dies with me, it's not like, you don't take any of that with you. And so identity flexibility is also a critical piece, because that's something we're usually attached to internally.

Nikki: Yeah, well, because what do we like to do as humans? Our brains want to attach to like, one story, one narrative, one way of being and it's this idea that, like, we can be many things and like, we can be many things in different moments. Well, so how then, for you, Pete does this concept of freedom factor in here? Like because and we just to, I guess, preface that by saying, for during this episode we're talking about… Is this episode going to be called freedom and flexibility, or flexibility and freedom, and Pete and I were like, “no, it's flexibility and freedom”. It's the flexibility that's the gateway to being free.

Pete: Entirely. And so freedom by Oxford's definition.

Nikki: I’m curious, I’m wondering if this definition is going to align with…

Pete: We'll see. If not, we'll just judge it. So the power or right to act speak or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. So I do like that. And obviously from like a social perspective, we want to be like, “okay, there's freedom with limits”.

Nikki: Yes. Freedom with boundaries,

Pete: Freedom with boundaries. And that's like we talked about, like compassion with boundaries. I mean, probably we could put any verb or feeling and say with boundaries.  

Nikki: Yeah. Well, that's a pretty sweet dialectic there.

Pete: There it is, love it. Yeah, so we like this definition, because I think flexibility gives it that. Because the hindrance or restraint is usually what we self-imposed. I mean, how many clients have we had that really are imposing their own barriers?

Nikki: Like their own set of rules or…

Pete: Yeah,

Nikki: No, absolutely. And you'll probably have to do of course, I'm like thinking ahead going like, oh, probably going to have to do a flexibility and structure episode at some point too. But yeah, no, that's exactly right, that the rules that we set up for ourselves and these rules maybe ones we've created in our own minds, they may be ones that we've learned from our families or cultures. Yeah, that those set of rules can get in the way of this recognition that, we just said a moment ago, there's no one right way to do things. There's no one right way to be that actually allowing yourself the flexibility to do something in a different way is going to, like very literally, free you up.

Pete: Yeah. And I just want to make space of season one, Episode Four, Episode 22. We talked about like social inequities and race and power. Yes. And I think what we're saying here is from like, a privileged perspective, too, because when I say something like it's self-imposed, there's truth to that, and even people that are disempowered, self-imposed with these rules and these restraints. And the system is another level of imposed restraint, actually, on certain behaviors. So this is not like, survival of the fittest like this is…

Nikki: Right. And we're also, and I guess related to that, to be clear, in this episode, when we're using the word freedom, we're not talking about, like, freedom in terms of, if someone's imprisoned or incarcerated, or someone is listening maybe in a country where you have different…

Pete: Communists or like,

Nikki: Yeah, liberty,

Pete: Less rights,

Nikki: Right. So I think that's important to distinguish.

Pete: That was really important, yeah.

Nikki: So when we're talking about freedom, in this episode, we're talking about the freedom you have in terms of your own life, and actually, I'm going to share this example, because I haven't [inaudible 11:57] talked about this. When I met Pete, we met on internship, I've talked about that. And part of my training was, I worked as a therapist in amends prison in New York. And there were a lot of men there that, obviously, had been incarcerated for a long time. And, we can, of course, talk about another episode, some of the major social issues associated with that

Pete: Or we could just portion.

Nikki: Yes,

Pete: We'll bring an expert on for that, yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. But what's coming to my mind now is, and I have this camp in therapy a lot, for people that especially were incarcerated for a long time, they had like, 20, 30 year sentences. How could they make meaning of the life that they had, even within the con… and we would talk very literally, like about the walls that they…

Pete: Well I would imagine, thus the word freedom would likely be pretty triggering…

Nikki: Correct. Well, wasn't, it was interesting, because I'm trying to think back. I'm like, I don't actually know if I used the word freedom, or if that was a word other colleagues used, but it was this idea about, I think, well, the word we use flexibility, was about like you still… So within the constraints of this life, what within the choice do you have? Well, what you choose, you choose your values, you choose the behaviors that you do here. And there were guys that went on and they got degrees there, or they got really… there was like a group, a literature group that had been running for, like 10 years, and they talked about…

Pete: So cool,

Nikki: It was really cool. But anyway, I share that example, just to say that, that's what we're talking about in terms of this type of freedom. I don't have to define that another way. Or add to that?

Pete: No, I think that's a really great example, and brings us back to our days of meeting which is, it's just really interesting to think of you inside that person. Because I know we, you and I talked a lot about that both during and after. And so trying to set it up. And it's not easy. Like even if anyone listening has ever had a loved one who is incarcerated or even like an inpatient unit, you don't really feel like you don't have any freedom. And what we always have is at least freedom to determine how we respond, how we feel, what our next step in which direction that looks like it's going?

Nikki: Yes, and I think that would be also, so like that example would be applicable if we have somebody listening in, they're in a country or culture where they have different types of civil liberties or rights. Or we could even apply this like if you're in a family or another system where there are extreme limits being placed on you. It's like, and I'm not saying any of this to be clear to say like, “Don't fight back against these systems”. I'm not saying that, what I'm saying is like, in a moment, when you're within those types of constraints, we always have the freedom to choose what's meaningful to us. And that's like a really, to me personally, like, that's very powerful.

Pete: It's beautiful. And that's why we need our episode on values. So listeners, you will get that.

Nikki: Yes, you will get that. It's coming,

Pete: It's coming.

Nikki: It's coming. Well, so Pete, I'm wondering, like, is the word ‘freedom’ come up at all, like in Buddhist teachings?

Pete: I mean, it would be exactly how you're describing it in terms of like, ‘You are always free of yourself’, because there is no self, so that really the non-attachment creates freedom, entirely.

Nikki: Say more about that. Because I think, again, we talked for I think non-attachment is a concept that…

Pete: Yeah. So the…

Nikki: Tricky for people.

Pete: Yeah, well, it's tricky for all of us.

Nikki: Yeah, fair, touche.

Pete: It really is. I mean, even as someone who studies this stuff and practices it, I mean, freedom is the idea that I'm… because I'm a prisoner of myself when I'm attached to my identity, when I'm attached to my feelings, my materials, and so the running joke in my house is like, if you're not bolted down, I could potentially get rid of you. Because I really do love [inaudible 16:16] just getting rid of things. Because what you learn in this practice is that nothing around us means anything. And that's not attachment.

Nikki: And then this is the… I think this is where it can get really tricky. And we can give it meaning, that's the freedom, we choose what we connect… Because connections real.

Pete: Well, it Yeah, well, and so the other piece of it not being bolted down to give is also that that's really in the Buddhist teachings where freedom starts, it starts with generosity. So there's this…

Nikki: I love that. Oh, that's… I love that.

Pete: So there's this word, I think it's called Donna or Danna. I don't know how, but that is this idea of generosity. And so like, when I have like my nieces or nephews around or god-children, I'm always teaching them of like, it's…. So here's a simple example. Like, if 20% is $5, like, maybe once in a while, I'll give you six or $7. And I actually did it with my godson of the day, I said, “how much you think we should give him”, and we talked about how just giving a little extra, really, if I can afford to do that helps paying it forward, we talk about that in terms of karma. But generosity doesn't have to be monetary, like generosity could be holding the door for people, smiling at someone who looks like they're unhappy. There's…

Nikki: Just kindness, generosity of spirit,

Pete: Just sharing as much as you can, and empathy, sharing sympathy, just being able to be with other people. And I feel like that's really my Dharma, like, that's my career, is about being with people, clinically, obviously, through their suffering, but also then taking that one step further and empowering, and empowering those that maybe have lost their voice or have lost their direction.

Nikki: Yeah, I mean, thank you for sharing that. And, I mean, I love learning from Pete because, as I've said many times, I'm kind of joke, I'm Buddhist informed, though, I'm not, I've not studied Buddhism, even close to the level that Pete has. And so like to hear that part of freedom from a Buddhist lens is rooted in generosity. That makes a lot of sense to me. I mean, I think that's very lovely concept. I'm also just, because I know, we're going to wrap up here in a moment, I think the last concept that I'm really curious to hear your thoughts on, because I do think this is also related. And we talked about this in our uncertainty episode last season, is the freedom that comes along when we accept,

Pete: Yes,

Nikki: And acceptance is also linked to flexibility. So I'm just wondering, like, sort of what's your take on that? Or what would Buddhist lens, say.

Pete: Well, so uncertainty, that was Episode 17, season one, and we also had a several on acceptance. I mean, it's just about whatever is thrown at us. I mean, you can't make sense of things. So one of the things I often teach is like, eliminating the question, ‘why’, we know that from a behavioral perspective, that's judgmental. But also like with curiosity, you just want to know why. Like I have a scientist inside of me like that's part of what led me to a PhD and to do the doctoral work I did and now my research. I want to know why a lot of times and if I can just release why, I can just accept, then I can just be with what is.

Nikki: I've never heard you frame it that way, and I find that very helpful because we talked about curiosity a lot. It's like when I'm teaching people about curiosity I'm doing what you're doing too. I'm actually trying to help people let go of the ‘why’, the problem solving the future, and use curiosity in a mindful way of, “it's not why, it's just observing”, like just taking in the data and often I'll say to people, which a mentor of mine said once I found very helpful, the answer will declare itself. Once you have enough information and that's something, as in the reason I bring in uncertainty is because when we really truly radically accept that we don't control or know what's on the other side of this moment, there is freedom to do what you want to do in this moment, to make the choices and those behaviors can be both covert, like how you're talking to yourself, the values you're connecting with or overt. So I'm sure we'll be talking about these concepts over and over again, in future episodes.

Pete: We see that it all links. I mean, I think, it's really interesting that we do things in season one, and now season two, and just realizing that there's a lot of overlap. But just be mindful that like, we can never learn too much like that beginner's mind is always an important piece of any kind of mindful journey.

Nikki: Absolutely. Well, thank you, Pete. I've learned a lot from you as per usual, and for our listeners, I really encourage you to think about where can you practice more flexibility in your life, both internally and overtly, externally in the world? And I encourage you to get curious and see, does that help you create more space and freedom in your own life?

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.