FAQs

Part 4: Spiritual Practice

Spirituality
Buddhist Practice

Part 5: Odds and Ends

Advice for Authors
Other

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Hardware

The Nervous System

I’ve heard that we only use a small amount of the brain’s capacity. Why is that?

In a general sense, we actually need and use all of the brain’s capacity. The idea that we use just 10% or so is a myth. We would not have evolved an organ that uses 20-25% of the oxygen and glucose in our blood – even though it’s just 2-3% of our bodyweight – if we (and our ancestors) did not need every bit of it. That said, many people do not make the best possible use of their talents, skills, values, and opportunities. To me, that’s the much greater loss.

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Can we do anything to increase the amount of the brain we use? If we did, would we unlock special powers?

We can increase the brain’s functional capabilities by protecting it (e.g., avoiding or reducing injuries, toxins, drugs and alcohol, and stress) and by internalizing beneficial experiences – helping them get encoded into lasting changes in neural structure and function – in order to grow more inner strengths such as resilience, gratitude, self-compassion, kindness, insight into oneself and others, and overall well-being.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a process that will give us true “superpowers,” but doing so leads us to being happier ourselves and more helpful to others. To me, that’s a really wonderful superpower! There are also many examples of people who have really gotten the most out of their brain and body through intense training in music, sports, dance, or meditation, and developed some remarkable abilities because of it.

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Is there any evidence that just reading the words which describe an experience will bring activity to the corresponding part of the brain?

There is a lot of fMRI research in which the prompt to the subject in the scanner is reading a text. Many of the texts used are emotion words or passages. So there are many examples of reading producing brain activity that is consistent with the experience the subject reports while reading the text.

More specifically, if you mean reading about an experience per se, I don’t know of any specific studies about that, but there well may be. Bottom-line, if you read about an experience – say, a memoir of combat or rock-climbing or bar-hopping or commodities trading or similar passages in fiction – and have a sense of that experience yourself while reading about it in someone else, then apart from the hypothetical influences of transcendental factors, by definition that mental experience must map one-to-one to underlying neural activity, and in the regions of the brain that represent that kind of experience (e.g., right hemisphere for imagery).

A parallel to reading would be imagining different experiences or behaviors. You might be interested in Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, in which she reports a study that piano players who simply imagined playing a certain piece of music for sustained periods grew cortex in motor regions of the brain that handled those particular finger movements.

This article of mine might also be helpful: http://media.rickhanson.net/home/files/MindChangingBrain.pdf

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Is the brain still evolving? Is the brain in any way advancing into a more highly evolved version of itself?

Biological evolution in humans takes thousands of years to show effects. On this time scale, the brain is indeed still evolving, but slowly. But cultural evolution can be very very fast (as anyone born in the 20th century has seen!). I am hopeful that our growing understanding of the three pounds of tofu-like tissue between our ears will lead to more evolved ways of treating each other.

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What causes goose bumps?

I don’t know much about goose bumps except that they are a vestige – “piloerection” – of ancient sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responses to stress, typically used to have the hair of an animal stand up so as to look larger and more threatening. Thus people get goose bumps sometimes when they are scared. Of course, the SNS can also activate with positive arousal, such as the experience of goose bumps during meditation.

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What is the role of the heart in our experiences?

To begin with, I think it’s easy to make category errors in confusing the metaphorical and the physical heart. The heart sounds warm and fuzzy while the brain sounds gushy or “head-y.” So it’s tempting to ascribe heartfelt feelings/inclinations to the physical heart even though it’s actually the brain that (still somewhat mysteriously) constructs those feelings and inclinations as experiences in our field of awareness.

As to the physical heart and the brain, there is interesting research on heart rate variability from Dacher Keltner, Heartmath, and other sources. I think sometimes there is an overemphasis on the heart’s influence on the brain and thus our experience of things like warm and loving feelings. Still, clearly there are feedback loops in which cardio-pulmonary processes regulate neural and thus mental activity. In effect, through Heartmath or related methods (e.g., metta practice in Buddhism, devotional practices in Hinduism), one can use the mind to affect the brain to affect the physical heart, which in turn affects the brain, which causes the mind to feel more peaceful/loving/happy. I have not seen research to this effect, but it is certainly plausible that changes in a person’s mental state – such as becoming more loving – involve functional and structural changes in the neuro-fabric of the heart.

Polyvagal theory is also a tremendous resource that indicates linkages between the heart and lungs and the “social engagement system.”

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The Mind

You start your book, Buddha’s Brain, by saying “When your mind changes, the brain changes.” Can you explain the difference between the mind and the brain?

I use the word “mind” the way it is essentially used, most of the time, in neuroscience, to refer to the entirety of the information represented within the nervous system. We are surrounded by examples of different materials representing immaterial information: the physical hard drive of your computer stores and operates upon the non-physical information in your documents, music, and pictures; physical sound waves carry the intangible meanings of the words we use; and so on. In the same way, the brain represents, stores, communicates, and transforms the information that comprises the mind. Most of this information is forever outside awareness.

In effect, the mind is what the nervous system does, headquartered in the brain.

There may be a transcendental X factor – call it God, Spirit, or by no name at all – at work in awareness, in the mind in general, or in the universe altogether. Personally, I experience and believe that this is the case. But even without this possibility, the dots that connect mental activity and neural activity are getting clearer and clearer – giving us many opportunities to develop and use increasingly precise and powerful ways of using targeted mental activity to stimulate and therefore strengthen the neural substrates of wholesome states of mind.

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It occurs to me that although it’s often said that the brain is the hardware and the mind is the software that it might be more accurate to say that the brain is both the hardware and software (ala operating system) and the mind is or are the data elements. Does this sound accurate to you?

For me, the mind/brain (nervous system) distinction is at bottom the distinction between immaterial information and a material substrate that represents it. I think information is real and natural while being immaterial – but information requires a material substrate. And in the nervous system, unlike a chalkboard, information in turn shapes neural structure; the mind changes the brain.

In ways that remain mysterious, somehow the realm of immaterial information becomes experienced phenomenology – for octopi and cats as well as people.

And there could be transcendental X factors at work as well.

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Green Brain, Red Brain

Why is it important to know about the Responsive and Reactive settings of the brain?

Taking in the good is a foundational practice that compensates for the brain’s preferential encoding of negative experiences and builds inner resources. More fundamentally, I am interested in naturalizing Buddhist psychology in a frame of evolutionary neuropsychology and operationalizing states and factors of non-craving (broadly defined in the Buddhist sense) in neuropsychological terms.

I’m using a conceptual framework that draws on polyvagal theory, Higgins work on promotion/prevention, and other work to posit three core motivational systems in the brain – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to others – which have two primary “settings.”

When a person experiences that his or her core needs are met for safety, satisfaction, and connection (tracking the three motivational systems), the related system tends to default to its Responsive setting, in which there is little or no basis for craving in that system; in this state, the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind rests in a basic sense of peace, contentment, and love (again, tracking the systems).

On the other hand, when the person experiences that one or more core needs are not being met, the related system shifts into its Reactive setting, there’s a fight-flight-freeze stress response cascade, the body burns resources, and the mind shifts into a basic sense of “hatred,” “greed,” and heartache (using two of the traditional Buddhist mental “poisons” in broad terms and tracking the three motivational systems).

While Reactive bursts can be adaptive, especially under the conditions in which our ancestors evolved, chronic Reactive states create significant allostatic load as well as a lot of unnecessary anxiety, irritation, frustration, drivenness, envy, interpersonal disturbances, and shame. Consequently, repeatedly taking in the good both down-regulates Reactivity and increases Responsivity in the moment plus gradually internalizes a felt sense of needs met as well as inner resources that together help stabilize a person in the Responsive mode even during challenging conditions, thus over time undoing many of the underlying neuropsychological causes of craving and thus suffering (broadly defined).

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Where does the “fight or flight” response come from? Does it have to do with the primitive/reptile brain or the emotional brain?

These distinctions about the brain – fight or flight response, primitive/reptile brain, emotional brain – are used a lot these days, but they’re inherently fuzzy.

The amygdala does initiate the fight or flight response through inputs into the hypothalamus (triggering the hormonal part of that response) and to brainstem control centers of the sympathetic nervous system (triggering the neural parts of that response). Some aspects of this response are emotional but some are not; and, complicating the distinctions further (among the fight or flight response, primitive/reptile brain, and emotional brain), some emotional shadings the amygdala is involved in don’t activate the fight or flight response. For example, the amygdala is involved in positive emotion processing. Some parts of our emotional life don’t involve the amygdala at all. See the complexities, here, in terms of the categories?

Plus, reptiles have a functioning basal ganglia, which is part of the subcortex on top of the brainstem and very involved in motivation, and to some extent, emotion. In the brainstem, there are nodes that can produce rage and fear, as well as nodes with oxytocin receptors (social system). The brainstem participates in emotion, and the so-called reptile brain is more than the brainstem: so, more complications. Also, the cortex is very involved in emotion, it’s not just the subcortex and brainstem: complications cubed!

“Amygdala hijiack” just means that the thalamus inputs into the amygdala with sensory information (like positive “carrots” and negative “sticks”) arrives before those inputs get to the prefrontal cortex. So the amygdala gets a second or two head-start over the cooler reasoning processes coming down from the prefrontal cortex. Also, more generally, the brain as a whole participates in “emotional hijack” that goes beyond the amygdala alone. The amygdala part of the emotional hijack is often overstated: it’s just a small head start. Still, in cases of prior sensitization of the brain due to trauma, that head start could make a big difference.

Overall, I think there is a natural and fine flow in the culture in which there is an initial enthusiasm for a subject and overstatement and blurring of distinctions, and then a second wave comes through to clarify things. That’s what’s happening with these fields now.

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Negativity Bias

You were quoted in a short post about negativity bias in which you stated, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones.” Can you explain this in more detail?

As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences – if one survived them! “Once burned, twice shy.” So the brain has specialized circuits that register negative experiences immediately in emotional memory. On the other hand, positive experiences – unless they are very novel or intense – have standard issue memory systems, and these require that something be held in awareness for many seconds in a row to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage. Since we rarely do this, most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones are caught every time. Thus my metaphor of Velcro and Teflon – an example of what scientists call the “negativity bias” of the brain.

The effects include: a growing sensitivity to stress, upset, and other negative experiences; a tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment; and a long shadows cast by old pain.

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You say that the brain has evolved to keep us alert and therefore there is an undercurrent of unease at all/most times. In another place you say that without pain or fear, the brain defaults to a setting of calm and contentment. How do I mesh these two different things?

Basically, I think the evidence is that both are true: there is an ongoing trickle of background anxiety to keep us vigilant, and there is also a strong inclination to default to the “responsive mode” of being peaceful, happy, and loving when we are not disturbed. Putting these two apparent facts together, I think the trickle of anxiety prompts us to scan for threat, but if we find that all is well for now, then we default to the responsive mode, and then this cycle repeats itself a moment later. For me the pragmatic point is to discern real threats and address them, while also recognizing the strong bias from evolution to look for threats behind every bush and thus appreciating the importance of exerting compensatory influences in a variety of ways, from inner practices such as I focus on to social support and (hopefully) decent health insurance.

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What is one practice we can adopt in our everyday lives to overcome our negativity bias?

Several times a day, take in the good by really savoring a positive experience for 10-20 seconds or more. (The second chapter of Just One Thing is about this.)

Over time, much as repeated negative experiences make the brain more sensitive to them, I believe that repeatedly savoring positive experiences can train your brain to internalize them increasingly rapidly – in effect, making your brain like Velcro for the positive and Teflon for the negative.

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Do you know whether brains of people raised in non-western, cultures like Bhutan or Tibet have the Velcro/Teflon wiring?

Great question!

I don’t think there are any scientific studies on this particular topic – though there is a lot of general research on the universal nature of the fundamental properties of the human brain, that cross cultures. Interestingly, there is much less genetic variation among the members of the human species than among the other primates; apparently, there were several “choke points” in our evolution when less than 100,000 thousand (and at one point around only 15,000 “Java Men” lived: in effect, they were an endangered species at that time). So we all have pretty similar brains, which all do have an evolved tendency toward threat scanning/reaction/memory storage. Then psychological factors shape the expression of those tendencies, including the loving and positive culture of Bhutan and Tibet. In a nutshell, two things are both true: we have strong tendencies toward negativity and craving, but we also have strong capacities to develop peacefulness, happiness, and love – and I believe these are in fact much stronger! But we must use them, as so clearly the Dalai Lama and others have done.

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Changing for the Better

Neuroplasticity and Learning

How did you get interested in your work?

Probably like many people, I had a sense as a young child that there was a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in my school, my family, and out in the world. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Then as I got older and learned about psychology, brain science, and contemplative wisdom, I became excited about the practical tools they offered for using the mind alone to change the brain for the better.

The brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make us happy or sad, loving or hateful, effective or helpless – so if you can change your brain, you can change your life. I have personally gained from these methods (my wife of 30 years says I have become nicer – which could be the toughest test!), and have seen many others get many benefits as well.

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Can we hardwire our brains to be grittier the same way we can hardwire them to be happier?

My hyper succinct two word answer is: “You bet!”

And to expand a bit: any kind of learning – including emotional, social, motivational, and character learning – must involve changes in the brain. This means that grit – resilience, determination, persistence, hardiness, courage – gets developed through changes in neural structure and function.

We develop more grit through having repeated experiences of determination, endurance, resolve, perseverance, and sheer survival that get woven into the fabric of the brain – and thus one’s life.

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What changes take place in our brains when we make the decision to repeatedly focus on the way we think about and react to situations in our lives?

In practical terms, learning – brain change – is a two stage process in which an activated experience must be installed through some kind of lasting change in neural structure or function. We become happier through having repeated experiences of happiness and related factors that get encoded – installed – into the brain.

Without installation, there is no learning, no change: in effect, the experience is wasted on the brain. This is the dirty little secret in most psychotherapy, human resources training, coaching, addiction recovery, and character education: most hard-won beneficial states of mind are momentarily positive but have no lasting value. That’s why many efforts to develop deep inner strengths in people are largely if not completely ineffective: they are indeed being fostered – but without deliberate mindful attention to sustaining them, feeling them in the body, and intentionally absorbing them into oneself, they just don’t get encoded much into the brain. The person may have a memory of a harrowing sailing trip or an intense week with Outward Bound, but is still basically just as vulnerable to stress, loss, or setbacks as ever because they didn’t “take in” those experiences.

Here is the key takeaway: it is commonplace to activate experiences of love, support, determination, endurance, and tenacity. What is rarer and more important is to bring skillful attention to installing these experiences in the brain so that they have enduring benefit for the person.

The good news is that this skillful attention can be readily developed, as we found in the research on my training in positive neuroplasticity, and as explored in Hardwiring Happiness. But we have to do the work 5, 10, 20 (usually enjoyable) seconds at a time. Then we know in our hearts that we have earned the results – which makes the strength that we develop even sweeter.

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Your work is based on the idea that meditation and mindfulness can change the brain. Can you expand on this?

Actually, I’d put this a little more broadly: my work – and that of many other scholars and clinicians – is grounded in the general fact of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” which is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure.

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What is 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity'?

Great question. Fundamentally, experience-dependent neuroplasticity is the capacity of mental activity to change neural structure. In other words, it’s the brain’s ability to change based on what you experience.

For example, researchers studied cab drivers who must memorize London’s spaghetti snarl of streets, and at the end of their training their hippocampus – a part of the brain that makes visual-spatial memories – had become thicker: much like exercise, they worked a particular “muscle” in their brain, which built new connections among its neurons. Similarly, another study found that long-term mindfulness meditators had thicker cortex in parts of the brain that control attention and are able to tune into one’s body.

In the saying from the work of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.

A traditional saying is that the mind takes the shape it rests upon. The modern update would be that the brain takes its shape from whatever the mind rests upon – for better or worse. The brain is continually changing its structure. The only questions are: Who is doing the changing: oneself or other forces? And are these changes for the better?

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Why is neuroplasticity important, and how do you use it in your work?

My focus is on how to apply the new scientific findings around neuroplasticity: how to use the mind to change the brain to change the mind for the better – for psychological healing, personal growth, and (if it’s of interest) deepening spiritual practice. I’m especially interested in:

  • How the brain has been shaped by evolution, giving us problematic tendencies toward greed, hatred, heartache, and delusion (using traditional terms) as well as wonderful capacities for happiness, peace, love, and wisdom. For example, we have a brain that makes us very vulnerable to feeling anxious, helpless, possessive, fixated on short-term rewards, angry, and aggressive. These qualities helped our ancestors survive and pass on their genes, but today they lead to much unnecessary suffering and conflict on both personal and global scales.
  • “Neurologizing”, the deep Buddhist analysis of the mind: what is going on inside the brain when a person is caught in the craving that leads to suffering? Alternately, what is happening in the brain when a person is experiencing equanimity, lovingkindness, meditative absorption, or liberating insight?
  • Using neurologically-informed methods to help overcome our ancient inclinations to fear, dehumanize, exploit, and attack “them” so that 7 billion of us can live in peace with each other on our fragile planet.

Brain stuff can sound exotic or esoteric, but in essence the approach is simple: find the neural processes that underlie negative mental factors, and reduce them; meanwhile, find the neural processes that underlie positive mental factors, and increase them. Less bad and more good – based on neuroscience and Western psychology, and informed by contemplative wisdom.

Of course, much is not yet known about the brain, so this approach is necessarily an exploration. But if we remain modest about what we don’t know, there are still many plausible connections between the mind and the brain, and many opportunities for skillful intervention for ourselves, for our children and others we care for, and for humankind as a whole.

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Can anyone develop a “buddha brain” — even people struggling with mental illness or depression?

Definitely!

First, a “buddha brain” is simply one that knows how to be truly happy in the face of life’s inescapable ups and downs (I don’t capitalize the word “buddha” here to focus on the original nature of the word – which is “to know, to see clearly”  – to distinguish my general meaning from the specific historical individual known as The Buddha). The possibility of this kind of brain is inherent in the human brain that we all share; any human brain can become a buddha brain. Therefore, a buddha brain is for everyone, whatever their religious orientation (including none at all).

Second, we all must begin the path wherever we are – whether that’s everyday stress and frustration, mental illness, anxiety, sorrow and loss, or depression. In any moment when we step back from our experience and hold it in mindful awareness, or when we begin to let go of negative feelings and factors, or when we gradually turn toward and cultivate positive feelings and factors we are taking a step toward developing a buddha brain. Each small step matters. It was usually lots of small steps that took a person to a bad place, and it will be lots of small steps that take him or her to a better one.

Third, mental anguish or dysfunction can help us grow. They teach us a lot about how the mind works, they can deepen compassion for the troubles and sorrows of others, and, frankly, they can be very motivating. Personally, the times in my life when I have been most intent on taking my own steps toward a buddha brain have been either when I was really feeling blue – and needed to figure out how to get out of the hole I was in – or when I was feeling really good, and could still sense that there had to be more to life than this, and more profound possibilities for awakening.

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How could you measure the neural change that leads to greater happiness? How do we know our brains are changing just because our minds are changing?

This question gets at the remarkable fact under our noses all day long: our ineffable thoughts and feelings are making concrete, physical, lasting changes in the structure and function of our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is learning, including the emotional, motivational, attitudinal and skills learning that is our focus in therapy. In other words, the making of memory – especially implicit memory, the storehouse of emotional residues of lived experience, knowing “how to,” expectations, assumptions, models of relationship, etc. distinct from explicit memory, the much smaller storehouse of specific recollections and knowing “about” – the gradual change of the structure and function of the brain.

In this context, any kind of mental change is evidence of neural change. Since neuroscience is a baby science, our current, noninvasive, imaging technologies have limited capacities to measure neural change in human beings – especially given how physically fine, fast, and complex these changes are. You could put five of the cell bodies of a typical neuron side by side in the width of just one of your hairs, and five thousand of the synapses, the connections, between neurons in the width of just one hair.

Nonetheless, even though the ethics of animal research trouble and even alarm many, including me, it is the case that more invasive research on animal learning – including emotional, motivational learning, that has some parallels to therapy – has established many fine-grained details of the ways in which experiences of stress, frustration, and trauma, as well as experiences of caring, success, and safety change the nervous system.

So we presume that neural change must be occurring if there is mental change. In this light, there are now many studies with human beings that show structural and functional changes after interventions such as training in mindfulness, compassion, body awareness, and psychotherapy. The cortex – the outer shell or “skin” of the brain – gets measurably thicker due to new synapses and greater infusion by capillaries for blood flow; key regions are more readily activated; there is also greater connectivity between regions, so they are more integrated and work better together; there are even changes in the expression of genes – tiny strips of atoms in the twisted up molecules of DNA in the nuclei of neurons.

And as your mind changes your brain for the better, these changes in your brain feed back to change your mind for the better as well. As these positive structural and functional changes in the brain occur, people become more capable and happy. For instance, training in mindfulness increases activation in the left prefrontal cortex, which supports a more positive mood.

As to new cell growth, I assume this is a reference to neurogenesis, the birth of new baby neurons, primarily in the hippocampus. We can encourage the birth of these neurons through exercise, and encourage their survival and wiring into memory networks through engaging in complexity and stimulation.

Here’s the takeaway: we can be confident in our own lives, and in our work with clients, that our efforts are bearing fruit in actual, physical changes in the nervous system. And since motivation is one of the primary factors shaping outcome in psychotherapy – and in life as a whole – this is heartening, wonderful news.

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In your understanding, what are the limits of brain plasticity? To what extent does our base genetic programming, and inherent personality traits, limit what we can change?

As you imply, most neuroplasticity is subtle and local, and does not change the overall architecture of the brain. I also think it is possible that there are individual variations in organic capacity for changing the brain, though I haven’t seen any studies on that (though they may exist).

I think a good starting point is to consider the vast diversity of human cultures, and the many individual examples of vast psychological changes – for better or worse – over the course of one person’s life. These illustrations of great mental plasticity are evidence for great neural plasticity in high impact ways, even if the vast majority of the synapses and circuits of the brain are unchanged.

The takeaway for me from this line of thinking is to appreciate the importance of hard work, of making little efforts each day that add up over time, to change your brain and thus your life for the better. And there’s a takeaway in terms of never betting against human potential and the human heart. Most of us have no idea how much we could grow psychologically or spiritually if we really gave ourselves to it, and put at least as much effort into it as we put into our occupation – or even our golf game!

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Can we actually change our personalities in major ways?

The basic features of temperament or personality are not very plastic, and tend to endure over time. I’m still a fundamentally watchful, shy, introverted, inclined toward anxiety kind of guy – just like I was in high school.

But how we relate to our core personality can change dramatically over time. For example, shyness – social anxiety – may still arise, but alongside it we can cultivate self-confidence, an internal sense of allies, self-acceptance, distress tolerance, dis-identification from the shyness, and other resources so that how we feel and how we act in a socially challenging situation would be much better.

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If you could design a program to create a major psychological/personality change, what would it look like?

If I was going to take your challenge and design a program for a major psychological makeover, it would have these elements:

  • Understanding, accepting, and fully experiencing whatever it is that the person wanted to change. Otherwise, what you resist, persists.
  • Releasing, working through whatever was significantly extreme, pathological, or neurotic in what they wanted to change.
  • Growing the “and also” aspects of their personality that are natural antidotes for or resources for the thing they wanted to change. My framework of three needs/systems addressed through antidote experiences has been very helpful to me here. For example, let’s say with shyness, I think of this as involving both the safety and the connection needs we have – and thus involving both the Avoiding and Attaching systems of the brain. So I’d look for ways to cultivate “and also” strengths inside such as feeling protected, determined, relaxed, loved, and worthy.

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Can you tell me how the brain is changed specifically by doing the practices you suggest? What parts of the brain change, and how do your practices support brain function over time?

As a broad principle, the brain regions or processes that are activated by an experience are the ones whose structure or function is most likely to be changed by the activation.

Neuroscience is a baby science, with much that’s not known. There’s much that may be plausible that doesn’t yet have a specific study to back it up.

This said, the conceptual, perspective aspects of the practice of reminding yourself mentally that everything is impermanent would tend to engage prefrontal areas that do conceptual processing, and with repetition and conviction, produce lasting changes there, i.e., learning, adopting, developing the habit of a new view.

Also, the physical and emotional relaxation that would come with accepting transience would likely involve decreased sympathetic nervous system activity, increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, decreased stress hormones, and increased reward- and pleasure-related neurotransmitter activity (e.g., dopamine, natural opioids). With repetition, duration, and intensity of the experience, there would tend to be gradual changes in the resting state and responsiveness of these neural processes.

Last, evidence of mental change is evidence of neural change. Otherwise we are left with supernatural explanations. So if a person feels different or acts differently, something must have changed at the level of the body, particularly the brain.

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Let Be, Let Go, Let In

What are the different ways we can work with our mind?

Fundamentally, in my view, there are just three kinds of ways to engage the mind, to practice with it productively:

  1. Be with it – Observe the mind, experience the experience, feel the feelings, etc. without trying to change anything in the stream of consciousness. Hopefully one does this with an attitude of curiosity, kindness toward oneself, and a certain stepping back – “dis-identification” – from whatever one is experiencing. One could also explore more vulnerable, fundamental, or younger material “beneath” the surface of experience, such as the hurt underneath anger or the old pain from childhood that amplifies or distorts one’s reactions. Through being with one’s experience it may change, but one is not directly making efforts to change it.
  2. Decrease the negative – Here is where we make efforts in the mind to relax tension from the body, vent or otherwise release emotions like sadness or anger, challenge and let go of wrongheaded thoughts, or resist or abandon problematic desires (e.g., wanting to get hammered or to yell at the kids).
  3. Increase the positive – Here is where we make efforts in the mind to take skillful actions (e.g., sitting up straighter to be assertive, calling the doctor for an overdue check-up), to encourage feelings like gratitude and compassion, to develop useful perspectives and other thoughts, and to strengthen and commit to beneficial desires such as exercising or not interrupting one’s partner.

In effect, if the mind is like a garden we can observe it, pull weeds, and plant flowers. In a nutshell: let be, let go, and let in.

The three ways to engage the mind work together. For example, we need to make efforts to grow capacities to be with the mind, such as self-acceptance, observing-ego functions, or distress tolerance. And we be with the results of our efforts to reduce the negative and grow the positive.

Of the three, the first one (which approximates the conventional definition of “mindfulness”) is primary. You can always be with the mind, but you can’t always reduce the negative or grow the positive.

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What’s the difference between mindfulness and the way you teach engaging the mind (let be, let go, let in), which is more experiential?

There’s definitely a place for the common advice people give to just “be mindful.” Still, it is important to do more than simply observe the mind.

What happens in the mind depends on what happens in the brain, and the brain is a physical system that does not change unless it gets changed (usually by oneself, if at all). The brain does not generally erase negative patterns simply because we observe them; if anything, its evolved negativity bias makes it retain negative learning. And the brain does not generally develop determination, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, or most any other positive qualities simply because someone is witnessing the stream of consciousness.

Even the Buddha – someone who profoundly valued mindfulness – allocated most of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path to the second and third ways to engage the mind (i.e., the release of greed, hatred, and delusion, and the cultivation of wise view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration).
When we are bothered or upset about something, there is a natural trajectory in which we start by being with our experience. Then, at some point, it feels right to start releasing it. Then, at some point, it feels right to start replacing what we’ve released with something useful and positive. The timing of this trajectory depends on the person and situation. Sometimes you realize quickly what is bugging you, and you shift into letting go of it and moving on to something happier within a minute or two. Other times, something hits you really hard – such as a shocking loss – and it could be months and even years before it feels right to shift into letting go, and then letting in.

Some people err on the side of jumping too quickly into letting go and letting in, but if you do that, those efforts don’t have much traction. Other people get stuck in letting be, in just feeling their painful feelings, and not making skillful efforts within their own mind to release the negative and replace it with something appropriately beneficial. I would like to think that my approach balances these elements in a positive way.

Mindfulness and my work on cultivation (let in – the skillful development of inner resources) are completely complementary. One needs to sustain mindfulness for effective cultivation: to turn passing mental states into lasting neural traits (the biological basis for psychological resources). And through cultivation, one develops the mental factors that support mindfulness. Additionally, mindfulness has benefits unrelated to cultivation (e.g., coming into the present moment) and cultivation has benefits unrelated to mindfulness (e.g., developing caring for others, self-respect, gratitude, positive mood, grit, hardiness).

Mindfulness and cultivation are both “experiential” in that both of these are ways of relating to our experience. Of course, our experience includes our thoughts – both verbal and non-verbal – and one can be mindful of thoughts, can have thoughts about mindfulness, and can cultivate beneficial thoughts (such as a sense of perspective on the hassles of daily life).

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Which of the three steps of let be, let go, let in is most important?

That whole process is very important, but my own work focuses on the third way to engage the mind: let in. This is the active cultivation and internalization of beneficial states of mind – in the context of the other two ways to engage it.

My view is that there has been a lot of development in both clinical psychology and the spiritual traditions of the first two ways to engage the mind, but not as much development of how to do cultivation skillfully. In particular, we have not really taken into account the implications of the fact that the brain changes – learns – in two stages (from short-term buffers to long-term storage, from state to trait, from activation to installation), and without really doing the second stage (installation), there is little or no learning, little or no lasting value.
So here is where there is good opportunity: developing ways to more skillfully “install” everyday experiences in the brain as lasting inner resources, such as resilience, kindness, happiness, and wisdom.

Thinking about the past or future, or categorizing self or other are four major ways our mind takes us away from experiencing the fullness of the present moment. What are the neurophysiological correlates of these distracting (and potentially helpful) states of mind ie; is there a ‘judging’ ‘comparing’ ‘planning’ centre of our brains?

Your question is deep and important – and the subject of considerable research. Check out what’s being done on the default network and mind wandering. Also see Farb’s research on the brain’s medial and lateral networks; my own take-off on this work can be found in my slidesets on Being and Doing.

A person can be in the present moment while (presently) planning the future or reflecting on the past. And being lost in reverie is not necessarily involving judging or comparing or planning. I suspect that sustained present-moment awareness primarily involves a recursive loop between the anterior cingulate cortex (for executive control of attention) and the insula (for an ongoing “map” of the body and emotions).

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What guidelines would you suggest to determine the moment when it feels like it’s time to move from letting be to letting go or letting in? And how do you differentiate releasing the negative or building positive resources from defensive avoidance?

I’ll try to respond to both of your questions together, since they are the two sides of one coin.

Your question is very important, how do we know when it is best to stay in “being with” (or “let be”) mode – simply witnessing our experience in open, spacious, accepting, curious awareness – and when is it best to shift into “working with” mode, either through releasing the negative (let go) or replacing it with something positive (let in).

I don’t think there is an ultimate right answer, it is more a matter of what is right for this person with these capacities with this pain at this time. For me, some guidelines:

  • Does the person tend toward being with or working with? So it could be good to lean the other way, or at least be skeptical of what is habitual. Personally, my strong suit was working with and I didn’t like being with my feelings. So I had to push the pendulum the other way for balance, and focus for a while on simply accepting and experiencing my experience without trying to shift it.

On the other hand, some people might be very good at observing their experience, but the garden of their mind is still full of weeds – some fear and anger, frustration and disappointment, envy and shame – that they haven’t pulled and plus it lacks some flowers – some self-compassion, determination, anxiety skills, gratitude, sense of accomplishment, lovingkindness, or self-worth – that they could have grown. Spiritual bypass. Or even, as you mentioned, they could be invested in their narrative or in the “secondary gain” from staying stuck in their pain. These people would benefit from more wise effort, as the Buddha put it long ago.

  • Second guideline: Are you learning and growing and changing for the better from simply being with your experience? If so, great. But if not, if it’s same ol’ same ol’, then it’s probably time to move on, to letting go and letting in.

On the other hand, are your efforts to release the negative and replace it with something positive not bearing fruit? Then probably you need to go back to being with your experience, and feel it more fully, in your whole body . . . and in particular investigate and open to its deeper layers, the more vulnerable, more fundamental, younger layers of this material.

  • Third guideline: Do you need to build resources inside in order to be able to be with your experience? Resources like self-compassion, observing ego, steady mindfulness, and understanding why it is actually good to open to your own pain. Without these resources, opening to your feelings can be like opening a trap door to hell. Therefore, how would it serve the first way to engage the mind – just being with it – by starting with the third way to engage the mind: growing inner strengths that would help you sustain accepting mindfulness of your difficult experiences?

In actual practice, often there is a little movement in the mind in which we accept our experience and open to it . . . and then quickly call up some resource inside (a mini working with the mind) and then go back to being with one’s experience, but now more able to stay with it.

  • Fourth guideline: What can you bear? A little pain can go a long way. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes what works is to touch the suffering lightly – simply being with it – and then move on to something else. And then come back to the negative material later.
  • Final guideline: As a person’s practice and well-being matures, as they increasingly internalize positive experiences of core needs met (safety, satisfaction, and connection), there is less and less underlying sense of deficits or disturbances – drive states – that lead to suffering. So there is less and less need to work with one’s mind, and there is a natural growing focus on simply being with it, opening into awareness itself and a sense of intertwining with allness. At this stage of practice, working with the mind becomes increasingly subtle and being with the mind increasingly becomes the central feature of practice.

Of course, this stage of practice is the result of a lot of working with the mind. And it would be unskillful to try to bypass it.

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Can you suggest some practical strategies for beginning to cultivate a “beginner’s mind” mentality around everyday experiences?

Since the brain is a big novelty detector, looking at experiences in this way, seeing what is fresh or new about them, can really help you accelerate the encoding and installation process, and thus internalize these experiences as psychological resources, also known as inner strengths.

To support this sense of freshness, you can imagine looking at the world through the eyes of child. Or adopt the attitude of “don’t know” mind – not “duh” mind – by disengaging from the internal commentary that labels and judges things, by allowing yourself not to be so sure about everything, by disengaging from your views, and by coming more into the body and less caught up in conceptualizing and abstracting. You could also engage the world and your experience in an adventuresome, playful, exploratory way . . . looking for new things, new aspects to familiar experiences. How fun!

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Mindfulness

So today I had a “bad moment” – I got stressed and upset about a work situation. My first thought was to let go of the negative thoughts that were running in my brain by actively take in the good. Then I wondered if that meant I was running away from the negative feelings in my mind/body, which seemed counter to mindfulness.

My take, with a bucket of salt:

  • Mindfulness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Mindfulness itself is sustained attention to something, typically with some meta-cognitive awareness of the quality of one’s attention. Mindfulness itself is morally neutral. A burglar could be very mindful. If people want, they can add other qualities to the mindfulness, such as an attitude of acceptance and friendliness toward the objects of attention, such as toward whatever may pass through the mind.
  • Mindfulness itself does not try to change the objects of attention. But mindfulness is not necessarily the only thing happening in the mind! If one likes, one could add some effort, hopefully wise, to change the objects of attention. A person could be mindful of her stress and negative thoughts for a while; then she could both be mindful and make an effort to shift what is in her mind; finally, she could be mindful of the results of her efforts.
  • As you can see, a certain set of presumptions have grown up around mindfulness in the past few decades that actually are additions to the original idea, notably the original idea promoted by the Buddha 2500 years ago. In particular, people talk as if an explicit stance against working with the contents of awareness is innate feature of mindfulness, and it is not. I recommend ready my paper, the Noble Eightfold Path for more on this.
  • Mindfulness itself is always helpful. And sometimes it is useful for a person to drop any effort to shift contents of awareness in any direction whatsoever; sometimes this kind of “choiceless awareness” alone helps negative thoughts release.
  • But often mindfulness alone is not enough. A lot of crud fills the mind, and it persists because the brain is a physical object that does not tend to change unless something changes it (in effect, Newton’s First Law). When you appreciate how embodied we are, and how much the brain is a learning organ that builds structure that it maintains unless it is actually changed, you get very interested in effective and efficient effort. Since neurons that fire together, wire together, keeping negative material in awareness can actually deepen its hold upon you.
  • In essence, there are two great elements in psychological healing, everyday well being and effectiveness, personal growth, and spiritual practice: being with and working with (in Buddhism: Right Mindfulness and Right Effort). These are the two great wings that help us fly.

Each wing has strengths. And the wings work together: mindfulness improves our efforts, and it takes skillful effort to be stably mindful.

  • Then you can make a free and wise choice, moment by moment, as to what will do the most good for oneself, or one’s client: lean toward pure mindfulness, or lean toward mindful efforts. Both are beautiful, and help us fly.

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How do you teach mindfulness for the first time to a general audience of adults?

If I am introducing mindfulness to a general audience, I am very matter-of-fact about it, unapologetic and undefensive, and use concrete, scientifically-tinged language. I speak of experience-dependent neuroplasticity, and therefore the critically important role of regulating attention as the first step in shaping the brain for better rather than for worse (given its negativity bias). This part takes me 2 minutes or so. Really. Simpler and faster is better.

Next I introduce the idea of sustained present moment awareness – the definition of mindfulness – as both an excellent training in attention regulation and an excellent practice in its own right.

Then we begin the practice, first seeing if they can sustain attention to the sensations of breathing – around the nose, or in the chest or belly, or in the body in general – for say 10 breaths in a row. (I always also state that other objects of attention are fine, such as a word like “peace.”) I could make a few comments about steadiness of mind, and remaining attentive to their own attention: meta-cognitive awareness of awareness. I might also gently suggest finding a posture that is comfortable and alert.

On the basis of the steadiness of mind established in this way, at some point – a few minutes in – I suggest that they remain aware of their object of attention while also staying present in this moment, and this one. Not resisting the thoughts and feelings and sounds etc. that come and go, just disengaging from them. Simply be-ing, gently relaxing, opening, softening . . . without strain or stress, opening into a growing well-being and peace . . . a kind of space or underlying quality of being that contains any pain or upset.
Usually we stay pretty quiet, though sometimes with a comment here or there by me to help draw people back into the practice.

And then we finish up. Gradually drawing people back into the room, opening their eyes if they’ve closed. Registering what the experience is like, and letting it sink in.

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Sometimes when talking with others I’m very focused and mindful of the topic, but not of my conversation partner’s experience. Then before I know it I’ve upset someone without noticing there’s anything wrong till the damage has been done. Any recommendations?

Traditionally, mindfulness is defined essentially as sustained present moment awareness of everything in the field of experience. You are present rather than absent, recollective rather than forgetful.

In this light, we can be in flow while also being mindful, but the metacognitive aspects of mindfulness – a little bit of paying attention to attention, aware of awareness, to remain mindful – do tend to pull people out of flow unless they develop the capacity to integrate flow and mindfulness.

In your case, you might explore what it is like to be really passionate and engaged, including intellectually, while also continuing to keep a bit of awareness for the overall situation, including the reactions of other people.

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What happens with mindful eating?

Mindful eating would naturally down-regulate stress activation plus increase experiences of fulfillment and satiation that would reduce craving and thus suffering – of course via the various neural substrates of these mental processes.

The primary identified neural correlate of mindfulness – defined as sustained attention to something, typically with a meta-cognitive element of awareness of awareness (i.e., the Pali term for mindfulness, sati, has its root meaning in “recollectedness”) – is activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and related PFC executive control circuits that manage the deliberate control of attention. The term mindfulness sometimes is reduced to choiceless awareness, which is a common but serious error; choiceless awareness is simply a stance toward the stream of consciousness, and one can be mindful of both that stream and the stance much as one could be mindful of one’s golf swing, the flicker of expressions on the face of one’s partner, or what happens in the mind when one eats slowly and with focused attention. When mindful attention is applied to eating, it’s very plausible that the insula would be activated, which handles interoception.

Mindful eating would plausibly affect the body by:

  • Down-regulating sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation, along with their related stress hormones; get benefits of less allostatic load
  • Up-regulate parasympathetic activation; benefits of relaxation
  • Strengthen ACC and related PFC circuits; benefits of improved attentional control and executive functions
  • Strengthen insula; benefits of improved self-awareness and empathy for emotions of others (insula does both)
  • Increase signaling to hypothalamus of visceral rewards received; benefits of reducing wanting and craving

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Do you think the popularization of mindfulness has had any negative consequences?

When talking about “mindfulness,” I draw on the traditional meaning of that term: sustained present-moment awareness. I believe that two unintended but significant mistakes have crept into the ways that many people think about and talk about mindfulness these days.

First, mindfulness is often taken to mean simply self-awareness. But mindfulness is sustained awareness of both the inner and outer worlds, both one’s experience and one’s environment. Driving in a busy freeway, I am mindful of both my inner anxiety as well as the big truck weaving back and forth next to my car.

Second, mindfulness is often described as simply observing, so that anything but observing is considered to be an obstruction to mindfulness. But actually, mindfulness is to be present in all three ways to engage the mind. For example, we need to be mindful of the process of cultivating the positive and of releasing or preventing the negative. And when we just be with the mind, mindfulness must be present alongside other factors such as intention or self-compassion. Making efforts in your mind is not an obstruction to mindfulness or at odds with it. In fact, we need to make efforts in the mind to grow resources for mindfulness (such as concentration).

Of course, these two mistakes about how mindfulness is frequently described and even taught these days do not mean that there is anything wrong with mindfulness itself. Mindfulness is wonderful! But these mistakes have had negative consequences that I have observed and others have described to me:

  • Encouraging a passivity with regard to one’s mind
  • Over-focusing on one’s experience, one’s inner life, and under-focusing on one’s environment and the real-world problems in it
  • Assuming that beneficial mental qualities like compassion, self-compassion, or resilience are somehow inherent in mindfulness itself so that they will grow on their own if someone just practices mindfulness
  • Assuming that negative qualities like feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, envy, or anger will just fade away if someone just practices mindfulness
  • Arguing against or otherwise resisting the idea of making skillful efforts inside one’s mind as “dualistic,” “goal-directed” (hm, what’s inherently wrong with being goal-directed?), or “egoic”

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Taking in the Good

Will you recommend some books to help me learn about positive neuroplasticity?

You can find some great books listed under “Introduction to Positive Neuroplasticity” here – http://media.rickhanson.net/home/files/WiseBrainBiblio.pdf

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How can you erase negative associations in neural structure rather than overwriting them?

This is a little tricky to describe clearly.

When something bad happens the brain sometimes starts to associate neutral stimulus with negative stimulus. There’s been a lot of study on this with animals. A few human examples might be being in an elevator after having a panic attack in one, or working with an authority figure when you’ve had issues with authority in the past, or being outside in the dark after being assaulted out in the dark, or speaking from the heart when that was shamed when you were young. The situations are not inherently bad, but over time we build up negative associations with them because we’ve been hurt in the past. It’s the classic idiom – once burnt, twice shy.

In studies on rats, and also in new studies with humans, the key is (A) the activation of the learned link between the neutral and the negative stimulus, and (B) the repeated activation of the neutral stimulus with no negative associations during the window of re-consolidation.

In practical terms, this would be a matter of surfacing a person’s association between a neutral and negative stimulus, and helping them understand conceptually (at least) that the neutral stimulus is actually inherently neutral. Then, after this process, repeatedly reactivate the neutral stimulus with no negative associations for the next hour or so.
Minimally, you could reactivate the neutral stimulus with neutral associations. And for maximum effect, I think it could be useful to associate the neutral stimulus with authentic positive associations, which you can think of as “antidote experiences.”

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If I understand correctly, your idea about achieving happiness is to fill your implicit memory with good experiences rather than negative ones. Have I got that right?

Filling implicit memory with good experiences is one way to achieve greater happiness – and to help heal old pain and increase resources for coping. Other ways to accomplish these ends include increasing mindfulness, releasing negative beliefs and feelings, learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and taking constructive action. That said, taking in the good is really important, both on general grounds and to compensate for the brain’s innate negativity bias.

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I’m not finding a reference for the 5, 10, or 20 seconds it takes to commit positive experiences to long-term memory vs. a lesser period of time for negative ones. Can you tell me where this comes from?

There is no specific number (5 or 10 or 20) – those are just shorthand references I use that seem to work for people. The key is a matter of degree: the longer, the more intense, and the more felt in the body an experience is the more it will be encoded in neural structure. This is a fundamental and widely known fact in the neuropsychology of learning (including emotional learning). It’s also known that negative experiences have an advantage: they get encoded more readily. So we are trying to do two things: steepen the learning curve from useful, beneficial experiences, and compensate for the negativity bias of the brain.

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As soon as I notice a good thing, I automatically have anxiety about not being able to hold onto it long enough, and then, of course, I lose the whole thing without holding onto it long enough. Help!

Try this: when engaging a basic sensual pleasure like eating a strawberry or enjoying a warm shower or bath, give yourself over to savoring the pleasure without anxiety. It’s natural for your mind to wander slightly; you needn’t be anxious about this; you’re still encoding the experience in implicit memory.

Also try focusing on breathing and giving yourself over to it.

And then use the learning from these experiences to apply to receiving other positive experiences.

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I have a hard time keeping up with a regular mindfulness practice. What would you suggest to help someone persist in practicing HEAL?

Three nice things about HEAL:
It’s usually quick and in the flow of everyday life, a dozen seconds here and half a minute there, a few times a day, helping good learning land and stick to your ribs.

It’s usually enjoyable, since – remarkably – most psychologically beneficial experiences are enjoyable. We have evolved rewarding associations to them because they actually help us survive to pass on our genes, in addition to all the benefits in terms of quality of life. These experiences feel good because they are good for us and others.

HEAL makes real changes in your brain, which is motivating to know.

So I find that using HEAL becomes pretty natural for people, like any good habit. If you’re a mental health professional you can do things with clients to encourage them to focus on key resource experiences between sessions, or simply put little reminders around them like doing HEAL at specific times such as at meals or just before bed or just after exercising or meditating.

As to regular mindfulness practice, you can use HEAL to internalize the experience of mindfulness so it comes more easily and you get better at it – just like internalizing the experience of any other inner strength, to grow it inside yourself. Similarly, you can use HEAL to internalize the benefits of mindfulness – or related practices such as meditation – so you get more motivated to practice as you experience its rewards.

Also, try making a commitment to meditate – which could include for a person the theistic version of contemplative practice, which is prayer – at least one minute a day.

 

Can you use the HEAL process to heal attachment issues?

You can use the HEAL process to internalize any beneficial experience, growing more of the good inside. So for attachment issues, you could use it with experiences that originate in actual here-and-now interactions or relationships with others. And you could also use it with experiences that you create by recalling past interactions and relationships, as well as with experiences of your own caring, kindness, respect, support, friendship, and love flowing out from you, since love is love whether it is flowing in or flowing out. Personally, I like the many options that this approach gives one, especially if the actual relationships in one’s life today are not that conducive to having key experiences targeted at old wounds.

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I have been working on losing excess weight, and have eliminated a lot of problem foods, but I still have problems with general food cravings.
I have listened to a hypnosis cd by Katie Evans called Extinguishing – Eliminating Sugar and Fattening Foods. It tells you to think of a problem food, like chips or candy or bread or whatever, and then she talks about maggots and rancidity and bad smells. So it is basically pairing a specific food craving with some negative sensations.
It seems very like Taking in the Good to dilute negative memories, but in reverse. Taking in the Bad to dilute positive feelings about something.
What do you think of this idea? Do you have anything like it?

Katie Evan’s technique is classic counter-conditioning, where one tries to replace a reward associated with a stimulus (e.g., cookies, chips) with a punishment. The bottom-line would be whether it works for you.

The little I know about fitness, weight loss, etc. is that leaning toward the good (e.g., feeling healthy, living longer) tends for most people to be a more sustainable motivator than leaning away from the bad (e.g., pictures of unappealing obese people on the refrigerator), in part because negative motivators are a fast-track to self-criticism, etc.

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Are there any concrete tips on how, exactly, to help positive experiences sink in, or is it simply being mindful of them a little longer and more purposefully than might seem typical?

In studies, there are six well-established factors that increase learning, including for developing greater resilience, gratitude, compassion, and other inner strengths: duration (stay with it), intensity (let the experience become more powerful for you), multimodality (feel the experience in your body), novelty (look for fresh, new qualities in familiar experiences), personal relevance (see how taking in this experience could matter to you), and priming (consciously intend that the experience is really registered by you).

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In the end, if I’m getting this straight, having an implicit memory full of positive experiences makes you less dependent on day-to-day or moment-to-moment events for your happiness. In other words, your happiness is literally inside, so whatever happens externally is less likely to upset that. Is that right?

Exactly right!

People who have not internalized positive experiences and other resources are dependent upon the outside world for the provision of them – or they get stoic or defended and deny their need for such experiences. This is a mistake since they are a universal, human need, as well as the basis for coping and for the strength of mind and heart it takes to stick up for those we love and make this world a better place.

But if you do take in positive experiences – particularly the ones that are key resources for a history of lacks or wounds (e.g., current experiences of feeling cared about are critically important for healing old experiences of abandonment, rejection, dismissal, loneliness) – then you fill up your own cup and become less dependent on external conditions; in effect, your happiness becomes increasingly unconditional.

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If you focus on the positive for long enough, does it actually make your brain more receptive to doing that?

Research shows that repeated practice of any positive behavior (e.g., gratitude) will increasingly incline the mind in that direction. Presumably, since all mental activity and changes entail neural activity and changes in brain structure, this changing inclination of mind must involve enduring changes in neural networks and activations.

More specifically, there is much research showing that negative experiences gradually sensitize neural networks, including for memory, in a negative direction. I don’t know of any specific studies describing an opposite effect, though there are studies showing that positive experiences and thoughts can gradually desensitize negative sensitization. This said, it’s plausible to me that a person could gradually sensitize the brain to “the good” since sensitization is such a general dynamic/mechanism in the brain – thus making the brain like Velcro for the positive. This has certainly been my own experience; I feel like I am much faster than I used to be at registering a positive experience so it “sticks to my ribs.”

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If someone was to adopt just one of daily practice to foster a Buddha brain, which would you recommend?

Taking in the good. I’ve been doing practices for 35 years (I’ve had a lot to practice with!), and this is my all-time favorite practice. I use it every day.

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Can you tell me more about the physical health benefits of taking in the good?

Taking in the good has two kinds of benefits: explicitly, it internalizes key positive resources in emotional memory, and implicitly, it involves being active on your own behalf. (Similar sorts of benefits are found with other practices in my book.) Studies have shown that key inner resources such as “an attitude of gratitude,” positive emotions, and skills with your thoughts and feelings all have significant mental and physical health benefits. For example, these resources calm down the stress response, which strengthens your immune system. They also lift well-being and protect against depression.

Further, when you are active on your own behalf, this reduces what’s called “learned helplessness.” You are being a hammer instead of a nail inside your own mind.

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Can intense positive emotions be harmful?

There is good research that energizing positive emotions – called “vitality affects” – have particularly beneficial effects on long-term health and thus longevity. Of course, sustained extremes of exuberance bordering on mania are debilitating, but that is rarely a concern since emotional states (distinct from moods) are fairly short-lived. An openness to and gentle encouragement of the causes of energized positive feelings such as joy, hilarity, delight, awe, passionate love, bliss, fascination, and physical pleasure have been important sources of my own healing, well being, and spiritual growth.

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One difficulty I’m having is that the more I take in the good, the more I fear losing that good. The closer I get to happiness the more I catch myself feeling deeply afraid that something bad will happen. I’ll see a good thing, and then be struck by fears for its impermanence. Do you have any suggestions for this?

You raise a real and common concern that if we feel good (putting it simply), then bad things will happen. Perhaps we will lower our guard, or others will punish us, or we’ll be disloyal to others who suffer.

I’ve thought a lot about this issue, with these reflections:

  • We can still be aware of threats even while feeling good.
  • In fact, taking in good feelings makes us better at dealing with threats.
  • Most people really want us to feel good and support us in feeling good, and usually we can gradually disengage from those who do not.
  • You can become increasingly aware of the underlying psychological patterns that associate fear with feeling good. Maybe those patterns made sense when you were young. But not today. With practice, you can be mindful of this reactivated psychological material and use the methods that I’ve covered extensively both on this site and in the Foundations program (based on Hardwiring Happiness), including the HEAL process, to soothe, ease, contextualize, and eventually replace those feelings.
  • Spending time with people who celebrate your aliveness, passion, and joy without shaming it is very good to do.

Your immersion in a beneficial experience is heightening – in the language of the Buddha – part of the “chain of dependent origination.” The “pleasant” feeling tone you’re experiencing (also called the hedonic tone in psychology) is causing “craving” for the experience to continue (so that the recognition of its impermanence is distressing), and you’re then “clinging” to it as an essentialized, stabilized thing. As the Buddha teaches, this leads to suffering.

For this, a dharma-centric approach would be to cultivate more equanimity, so that the heightened pleasantness of the experience encounters a heightened “shock absorber” of equanimity, and you are able to enjoy the pleasantness without craving or clinging to it. Also, as the pleasantness is repeatedly internalized, it should shift your overall state into greater well-being and less basis for craving and clinging altogether.

It seems like your brain is associating one thing with another, such as love for your child —> fear for their well-being. For that, I’d suggest developing mindfulness of the fear, then opening to the felt knowing that she is OK, then returning to love for her. Intuitively, my hunch is that you have a huge heart. The Link step in the HEAL process, repeatedly taking in antidote experiences for the unresolved pain or traumatic residues, could really be helpful here.

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Your work seemingly conflicts with the findings of research at Waterloo University in Canada considering the effects of stating positive affirmations when a person is negatively tuned. It seems that these people feel the gap between where they are and where they want to be – feeling worse after making a positive affirmation instead of better. Perhaps seeing what is differs from opposing what isn’t? Do you have an explanation for the seeming discrepancy?

I know about this research, and it’s interesting. I think it reveals a fairly narrow and specific phenomenon in which people who are relatively unhappy think about something positive and then feel worse because the gap between their current state and where they want to be is highlighted. For this to occur, the “happiness intervention” must be ineffective, otherwise their mood would be lifted and the gap would close between their current state and where they want to be. So what this research actually means is that affirmations are not very effective, at least the way they were done in the study and others like it, and that we need to make effective efforts in the mind to increase happiness (broadly defined).

The sort of skepticism about making deliberate efforts to nudge the mind in a happier direction that is implicit in this study and in related critiques of trying to be happy must also be considered in light of the thousands of studies (plus personal experiences) showing the general effectiveness of interventions to increase positive states and decrease negative ones. It’s interesting that dozens of these intervention studies are published every month – reducing anxiety, increasing self-compassion, regulating anger, increasing gratitude, etc. etc. – and we never hear about them. But let one study appear from a – ah – grumpier perspective, and it’s in the news. This is what’s particularly curious to me, the investment in skepticism about and frank dismissal of deliberate efforts to increase mental health and happiness.

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As a physician I want to know: why pursue happiness practices like the ones you suggest rather than pouring 100% of one’s energy into work that saves/elongates lives?

My small answer to your big question is in three parts. First, it is of course not either-or, one can both pursue mental interventions that increase mental health while also pursuing physical interventions that increase physical health. Second, happiness practices and other mental interventions are very effective in increasing physical health, in terms of addressing the stress and lifestyle factors that are a major source of disease burden, especially in the developed world. Third, mental interventions are good for physicians and other healthcare providers themselves, in terms of improving decision-making and reducing burnout.

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Will you recommend some books to help me learn about positive neuroplasticity?

You can find some great books listed under “Introduction to Positive Neuroplasticity” here – http://www.rickhanson.net/articles/positive-neuroplasticity/.

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Using Your Skills

You have so many practices, sometimes I get overwhelmed by it all. How do you deal with that sense of overwhelm?

I definitely understand the issue of “where do I start?” Some people are more flooded than others by seeing the whole. Paradoxically, the more able one is to see everything – a beautiful gift – the more one needs to develop the executive functions to focus and act upon something.

I deal with this myself in several ways. One is literally to start at one corner of my desk and work inward from there, one piece of paper at a time. Another is to do a quick sort of papers into three piles: Action, File, and Toss – and then work my way downward on the Action pile one piece of paper at a time. Or best of all, pick the most important thing and do that one.

Overall, the key is to clock real time getting stuff done. In this frame you don’t need to pick the perfect right thing to do. Just do something and then another thing, minute after minute, hour after hour for a few hours at least in a row (take brief breaks as needed), day after day. Nothing digs ditches like shovelfuls of dirt.

And reward yourself for your efforts and progress. In this approach, you’re engaged and productive, but not pushy or self-critical with yourself.

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How do we know that our daily practice is 'working' and how does one measure such a thing?

This is a really important question. I have written briefly about this, but most of my content can be found as part of various talks and presentations. You might like a talk I gave – What We Practice – that you can find here: http://www.rickhanson.net/multimedia/audio/talks/buddhist-wisdom.

I think there are two key parts to practice:

  1. Disentangling from the conventional suffering-saturated strategy for happiness, which is ultimately doomed.
  2. Opening into that which is a reliable basis for lasting true happiness.

I have been served by various Tibetan sayings:

  • In the beginning nothing came; in the middle nothing stayed; in the end nothing left.
  • In the beginning nothing came; in the middle nothing stayed; in the end nothing left.
  • Gradual cultivation, sudden awakening.
  • Moments of awakening, many times a day
  • If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.

I also try to operationalize “working.” Is the heart becoming more open, are we increasingly able to “cling to nothing in this or any world,” are we becoming more accessible to unconditionality, are we becoming more contented, loving and peaceful?

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I was asked if it was ok to paint over the height markings from our children on a door jam that have accumulated over the many years we have been in our home. Although I was trying to ignore my feelings about it, and be tough, when asked a second time, I broke down in tears, saying it breaks my heart just to think about painting over that. How does one more forward, and not cling to the attachments of such sentimental things?

A beautiful, dear, and touching question.

Maybe in the upper reaches of enlightenment people get so equanimous that painting over their children’s growth chart is just a big “whatever, dude.” But, I think it is perfectly fine to cherish and take joy in and value certain things.

If we lose any of these things, sure, we should try to not over-react, and try to take them in stride. Sometimes there are ways to hold onto things we love in other forms.

But to imagine that we should not value some things is utterly unnatural. At all levels in the physical architecture of the body or the information-processing architecture of the mind, there are goals and their pursuit. These are values, built into the body and mind. Trying not to have values is itself a value. The only question is whether our values are good ones, and pursued in good ways.

And to me, sentimental objects from raising our children are pretty darn valuable

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I understand the benefits in the effort to be happy and at peace, but how does one deal with the sadness in life? How do I reconcile awareness of suffering with a feeling of well-being?

First, I try to develop my capacity to sit in both compassion and equanimity, opening the heart to pain while also being undisturbed in my core about it. A long-term project in my case, to be sure!

Second, I try to see the whole mosaic of reality, which includes both beings that will be harmed and beings that will be loved. Recognizing the good (using that word loosely) does not mean not recognizing and feeling moved by the bad; and seeing the good can help us bear and sometimes improve the bad.

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Once an uncomfortable pattern has developed, bad expectations seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for some folks – is there a basic first step to break the pattern?

The first step is always self-awareness; without it, we’re flying blind. Try to step back in your mind and observe your reactions without being swept away by them.

Then bring compassion – the simple wish that a being not suffer – to yourself. Researchers have found that self-compassion builds resilience and well-being, plus it helps us treat others better; many studies have shown that people are more able and willing to be patient, reasonable, and kind when their own cup runneth over.

I also like to try to help myself feel the rewards that will come to me from breaking my patterns and acting more skillfully in the future. This helps incline my brain in that direction – sort of like the proverbial rider dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.

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I’m a stickler for science, and believe we should only advocate solutions with scientific backing. I’m not sure of brain supplements at all, and hope that any discussion of them has the backing of scientists.

I appreciate your comment, and share your stickler-ness! As to supplements, there is considerable published evidence for the efficacy of nutrients such as essential fatty acids or B-vitamins as supports for mood if there is a deficiency. There is also considerable research support for supplementing 5-hydroxytryptophan for mild to moderate depression.

As context, you may know of the recent high profile finding in Great Britain that there was no research evidence at all for about half of all medical practices. This does not mean that the practices are bad; as you know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But it does suggest that there is double standard in insisting on research evidence for nutrients the body has evolved to metabolize but not insist on research evidence for off-label uses of medications that are artificial molecules the body did not evolve to metabolize.

Also as context, in America medical error is the third leading cause of death, about 200,000 fatalities a year here, the great majority due to problems with medications. By comparison, the risks of things like essential fatty acids or B-vitamins are vastly smaller.

Personally, I have known people who are dogmatically holistic as well as people who are dogmatically anti-holistic. In my own case I try to find the path between the two.

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Why is being better than doing?

I keep trying to remember (as a major do-er myself), that it is in “being” that we usually find our deepest, most reliable refuge and refueling station – including when we rest in some sense in being as we engage “doing.”

As to those who are struggling in this world that we cannot concretely help, to me it’s important to have compassion and to bear witness and to be a stand for justice: I have faith that this is worth being and doing in its own right, and faith that in ways largely unknown this will in fact be concretely helpful somehow some day.

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Once an uncomfortable pattern has developed, bad expectations seem to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for some folks – is there a basic first step to break the pattern?

The first step is always self-awareness; without it, we’re flying blind. Try to step back in your mind and observe your reactions without being swept away by them.

Then bring compassion – the simple wish that a being not suffer – to yourself. Researchers have found that self-compassion builds resilience and well-being, plus it helps us treat others better; many studies have shown that people are more able and willing to be patient, reasonable, and kind when their own cup runneth over.

I also like to try to help myself feel the rewards that will come to me from breaking my patterns and acting more skillfully in the future. This helps incline my brain in that direction – sort of like the proverbial rider dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.

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What role does gratitude play in developing a “Buddha brain” and why?

A “Buddha brain” is one that knows how to be deeply happy, loving, and wise. We develop ourselves in this way by cultivating wholesome qualities and uprooting unwholesome ones. In a sense, we plant flowers and pull weeds in the garden of the mind – which means that we are gradually changing the brain for the better.

Gratitude is a powerful tool in this “garden” since what you rest your attention upon is what will shape your brain the most. That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Gratitude shifts your attention away from resentment, regret, and guilt – and therefore stops you from building up the neural substrates of these known factors of mental and physical health problems. Gratitude also focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange.

To reap the rewards of gratitude, rest your attention on a good fact, noticing details about it, staying with it for at least a few seconds in a row. Then allow a natural emotional response of gratitude to arise. Continue to pay attention to this feeling of gratitude for another few seconds – or even longer: it’s delicious! Taking these few extra seconds will help you weave gratitude into the fabric of your brain and your Self. And you can practice gratitude both on the fly, as you move through your day, and at specific occasions, such as at meals or just before bed.

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Is gratitude beneficial as a spiritual and/or mindfulness practice in and of itself?

Gratitude supports spiritual practices – or related secular ones, such as everyday mindfulness – in a variety of ways. It draws our awareness to a sense of fullness, of having enough, and this reduces the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm towards oneself and others. It is a doorway to awe and wonder at the stunning fact that the universe exists at all. It helps you appreciate the extraordinary gift of being alive and of having a human life, so you want to make the most of it and don’t want to waste it. And for some, gratitude draws them toward an appreciation for God – however they experience or conceive of that.

Of course, each of these benefits also gently and gradually shapes one’s own brain in an increasingly positive direction.

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What are the health benefits to thankfulness?

The mental and physical health benefits of gratitude are hot topics these days. Researchers have found that gratitude helps calm down the stress response – and this strengthens your immune system so you can better fight off colds this season. Gratitude also supports the neurochemistry of well-being, and protects against depression. It builds resilience, so we get less rattled by events and bounce back faster. And gratitude turns us toward others as we appreciate the people we care about, and this sense of connection and what’s called “social support” provides additional health benefits itself.
So every day this season, take your Vitamin G: gratitude!

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In the key points for Chapter 6 of Buddha’s Brain, ‘Strong Intentions,’ you write: “Ideally, your intentions will be aligned with each other at all levels of the neuroaxis: that’s when they have the most power.” What do you mean by this?

Think of the brain as a house with three floors: brainstem, sub-cortical tissues (e.g., hypothalamus, amygdala, basal ganglia, hippocampus), and cortex. The “neuroaxis” is just a way of talking about this vertical arrangement. Loosely speaking, the brainstem is about arousal and passion, the subcortical regions are about emotion and motivation, and the cortex is about planning and decision-making. In essence, the sentence you zeroed in on (which is sort of vague, you’re right) means: “Have intentions that are fueled by passion, emotionally rewarding (supporting motivation), and well-considered with a plan to bring them to fruition.”

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Any words of wisdom regarding addiction? More specifically how to “help” an adult child?

About addiction and adult children, I am no expert at all. I could offer only standard common sense thoughts, including reaching out to professionals who specialize in this area, considering going to meetings of people who have relatives with addiction issues, reading on this topic, maintaining your own boundaries, having compassion for your child and yourself and any others who are involved, naming the truth as appropriate, and resting in love as much as you can.

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I am looking for ways of rebuilding cognition in my partner who has MS. Do you have any experience in this area or suggestions? His assessment reveals consistent and clinically significant levels of attention/executive function compromise.

I can’t give any specific advice, but I think focusing on strengthening the executive functions and working memory is a great place to start. These are truly trainable functions. Check out the literature on executive functions and how to improve them; I encourage people to use fun tasks like cooking or crafts that require multi-step actions.

You could also try to extend his capacity for digit-span backwards. How many numbers can he repeat backwards if you say them forward? Then try to increase that quantity by one or two. This is a great working memory task. You can do other things that are visual-spatial.

Focusing on concentration practices in meditation – distinct from open awareness – could also help. For example, can he stay present with ten breaths in a row? How about a hundred? (A way to do this is to hold the hands gently closed to start, and open one finger at a time as you do ten breaths).

I’ve never used them myself, but you could also check out some of the brain training programs like Lumosity, including those for older people. Your partner is not demented, of course, but the practices that increase cognitive control and memory for older people might be helpful for him.

Last, obviously, keep stress low and love and happiness high.

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How can I overcome decision fatigue?

My quick two cents is that a lot of the research about decision fatigue (or related: willpower fatigue) is first about the average of groups and does not take into account individual differences in temperament or mental training, and second the results that are found are indeed statistically significant but in practical terms are not actually very consequential.

I think too that when people surrender to their important purposes – and ideally, continue to associate rewards (e.g., “gladdening the heart” as the Buddha taught) to them – then they don’t get fatigued.

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What methods can you recommend to help boost memory?

I suggest starting by making sure you are in super health and ruling out any physiological factors. I’m not a physician, but have heard that things like estrogen imbalances, yeast overgrowths, etc. can affect memory.

Doing mental activities that work the memory “muscles” could help. Like playing bridge and having to remember key cards, learning a new language, or taking a class that calls for considerable memorization.

And if you’re not doing meditation routinely, I suggest it, too. Among its benefits are strengthening executive oversight of mental processes, which aids memory plus provides more influence over one’s thinking

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Do you have any thoughts on the new technology coming out that uses self-administered neurofeedback to promote well-being? Can you recommend a specific device?

Here are my general thoughts:

  • I haven’t used these devices personally
  • There is emerging scholarly and anecdotal evidence that they can be helpful.
  • Some people seem to get a lot out of them, some a little, some not at all, and some are bothered by them. You basically don’t know which group you’re in unless you try them.
  • I think of these devices pragmatically: are they helpful, but might they also crowd out more self-directed, inside-out training of the mind/brain system.
  • I think these can be great if they are helpful, but long-term it’s good to be able to incline the mind/brain towards good states without external help.

The bottom-line is whether they work for a person, and you don’t know if it’ll work until you try it. Maybe check out one of these devices that a friend may have, if possible, before buying one.

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How might the increase in autism and related challenges be connected to the evolution of the brain and modern day living?

If I understand you correctly, the biological evolution of the brain, like any bodily organ or system, occurs over hundreds and usually thousands or tens of thousands of generations. So there hasn’t been time for the brain to evolve physically – such as increasing underlying causes of autism – in the handful of generations since 1900.

The causes of autistic spectrum disorders (including Asperger’s and PDD) remain mysterious and controversial. It’s possible that there could indeed be a connection between modernity and autism, though whether this hypothetical connection occurs via the brain or via other organs or systems (e.g., the immune system) is an open question.

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How does being-awareness relate to our underlying animal nature?

For me an underlying truth or theme is surrender, humility, and opening out into our animal nature node in a vast net of causes. One of my favorite practices is to soften, opening into the body in which the inner lizard, rat, and monkey long to feel safe, fed, and loved but are primed by mother nature to doubt and seek in order to survive and pass on genes – even though they are actually already truly safe fed and loved. This means that they need lots and lots of experiences of fullness again and again for the sweet truth to pass through Mother Nature’s well-intended veils of delusion and into their lying brain.

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Do you have any suggestions for people who commonly experience episodes of extreme pain?

First of all, I’m very sorry that you’re experiencing this. I am not a specialist in this area, so I offer these ideas modestly. What I have experienced myself and seen helpful for others is:

  • Know that you are not dying. The pain is terrible, awful, and yet your core of being is still intact. Try to locate yourself in this center, this core, as a place of refuge. Try to be aware of what is also true about yourself and the world: the things that are not in pain, the things that are working, the things that are good.
    • Have compassion for yourself. Bring a softness and sweetness to yourself, much as you would to a dear friend in extreme pain.
    • Accept the pain. Resisting it just makes it worse. It is here, it is true, even though it is not your preference.
    • See if you can explore it mindfully. Step back from it and observe the different aspects of the pain from a place of open spacious awareness. Try to see it more impersonally, as an intensely unpleasant collection of mental phenomena that are arising due to many causes and not created or owned by a “self.” Notice that awareness itself is untroubled by the pain it holds.
    • If you can, notice the universal characteristics of any experience in the pain: made up of many parts, continually vibrating/pulsing/changing, arising and passing away due to causes, and insubstantial. In effect, any experience, including extreme pain is “empty” of absolute independent existence, and the recognition of this can bring relief and freedom.
    • If you can, try to sense, intuit, or imagine the larger mystery, the unconditioned, the divine that is the ultimate space and basis of mind and matter. In this is our ultimate refuge, no matter how terrible the pain.

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Meditation

Can MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) really be labeled as mindfulness meditation if it only relies on the sustained present moment awareness and not without the old theories (religious and cultural) and proven stages of awareness?

You are very wisely raising a key question that is actually quite controversial.

When taken by itself, there is considerable research evidence for the benefits of MBSR in particular and of related secular trainings in mindfulness (defined as sustained present moment awareness, typically combined with qualities of self-acceptance and curiosity). This research is credible and a sound basis for applications in the settings you work in. So, from a secular perspective, things seem clear. MBSR is not Buddhist any more than self-awareness, attention training, self-acceptance, or meta-cognition are Buddhist. If someone says, “We can’t teach mindfulness since that is Buddhist,” I politely tell them that this is mistaken: the Buddha in particular and Buddhism in general has no monopoly on mindfulness, compassion, taking personal responsibility, insight, or kindness even though these are central elements of Buddhism.

But, from a Buddhist perspective, some people (such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and other respected teachers) think it is fine to extract elements of Buddhist practice (e.g., mindfulness) and then apply them outside of that Buddhist context, while other respected teachers think that this is wrong to do. Myself, I side with Jon on this question.

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Is bad science driving the popularity of mindfulness meditation?

It is widely recognized in mainstream medicine that roughly half of all medical procedures (including “off-label prescriptions”) performed routinely in in-patient and out-patient settings lack a single study substantiating them. This does not mean they are bad medicine; they are considered part of the reasonable standard of care. In the well-known saying in science: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

The evidence for most healthcare interventions, including routine medical practices, is nonexistent, limited, shows mild benefits at most, or could be questioned methodologically. In this context, check out these two links:

http://media.rickhanson.net/home/files/SlidesIntegrativePsychiatrySept2011.pdf

http://media.rickhanson.net/home/files/slides/IntegrativePsychiatrySept2011_PapersCited.pdf

As you can see in these links, the evidence for mindfulness and related practices (e.g., meditation) for promoting mental and physical health is quite robust. If Pfizer or Merck could patent meditation, based on the research findings already, we’d regularly be seeing ads for it on primetime TV.

There is a kind of pocket industry of debunkers who make their bones trying to taking down interventions that have any kind of holistic, new age, or spiritual air about them. It is so easy to debunk things. You can debunk nearly anything. You can always find fault with academic papers. You can always call for more evidence. So let’s call for more evidence in domains with big risks instead of tiny ones.

Meditation is free or inexpensive, has rare (but occasional, as Willoughby Britton’s research has found for some vulnerable people going into intensive meditation retreats) negative side effects, and can be done in many kinds of settings by many kinds of people in many kinds of ways. Its benefits, and the evidence for its benefits, should be netted against its very low risks; the higher the risks, the higher the need for evidence for an intervention, but the lower the risks, the lower the need for evidence for an intervention. About 200,000 people die each year in America due to medical error. If you participate in medicine, there are significant risks, I don’t say this to criticize medicine – I value it highly and am grateful to my doctors – but to put this issue in context. How many people die each year due to participating in meditation? The risks are tiny.

Sure, we should be careful about over-claiming about the evidence for anything. But I rarely see that. Mostly I see people saying essentially that meditation could help you become more self-aware, lower your stress, and grow calm and other resources inside yourself, and these psychological developments couldn’t hurt your health and might even help it through the stress reduction pathway. This statement is accurate when applied to the majority of people who take up meditation.

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I find that concentrating on inhaling and exhaling makes me breath heavily and more deeply than I normally would - and I feel absolutely terrible when I do it. Can you suggest something to help me breathe mindfully?

Many people have difficulty using the sensations of breathing as an anchor for their attention during meditation, or even generally. Sometimes it is because body sensations in general or breathing in particular have gotten associated with painful, even traumatic, experiences. Other times there’s no trauma history but something about the breath just doesn’t work for a person.

No worries, actually: in meditation, the point is not the object/anchor of attention, the point is the quality of sustained presence of mind moment after moment – along with related helpful factors such as self-compassion, acceptance, and learning along the way from one’s experiences. So you could shift to any number of other, often common, objects of attention, such as a word or phrase (e.g., “peace,” “may we be happy,” “om”), an image (e.g., a candle, a picture of a saint, a memory of a beautiful meadow), or sensations in other parts of the body. And you could also do meditation while walking slowly.

If you still want to explore breathing, what I do is have a general awareness of my torso and whole body while breathing rather than focusing on any particular spot, and without trying to regulate breathing in any way. Move out to the body as a whole, and let the sensations of breathing come to you as it were, receiving them without effort. Meanwhile, there is a natural relaxation, letting go, warm-heartedness, and growing sense of well-being, contentment, and peace.

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What is the best time of the day to meditate?

In all the studies (and reviews of studies) I’ve seen on meditation, I’ve never seen anything scientific about best time of day to meditate. Maybe it exists, but I’ve never heard of it.

From the standpoint of a long-time meditator, plus someone who teaches meditation, my practical answer is this: the best time to meditate is whatever time you will actually do it. It’s a variation on the old line that the best exercise in the world for you is whatever you will actually do.

This said, there is science that the mind is quieter for most people when we first awaken in the morning, plus we are less likely to fall back asleep, so that is an easier time to meditate. Additionally, meditating in the morning lays a good foundation for your outlook and mood for the whole day. (And as a practical matter, if you meditate before the kids get up, if you have any, the house is still quiet.)

Science also shows that just before sleep, the mind and brain are very receptive. In this hypnagogic state, the influence of meditation is going to be high, with results that could ripple through the night. The tradeoff is that we are less alert since we are sleepy.

So perhaps the perfect combination is have your main meditation in the morning (however long it is, even just a few minutes), with a minute or more just before sleep.

But remember, no matter what the scientists say, the best time to meditate is the time that works best for you.

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If you are practicing focusing on your breath the entire meditation, how do you also “relax, feel safe, be open to feelings of well-being and sense your awareness as boundless space.” It seems I am always splitting my attention into at least 2 (or more simultaneously) focuses. How then do I reap the brain benefits of single-minded focus for five minutes?

When we try to open to, encourage, evoke, kindle, call forth, etc. a positive mental factor during meditation – e.g., relaxing the body, feeling more protected and thus safer, finding some well-being even happiness in awareness, feeling a sense of spaciousness in experience – you’re right there is a focusing of attention on that factor. In the background of awareness there may also from time to time be a sense of body sensations, perhaps those of breathing, but there is no attempt to be simultaneously and equally aware of both the breath and the positive mental factor: that is a difficult if not impossible balancing act and stressful to attempt as you have experienced.

Then, after the mental factor has been activated, we can either make it the object of focused attention or shift to the breath (or something else, such as a saying like “may beings be at peace”). If you are working on steadying the mind, a good focus especially in the beginning and intermediate stages of meditating, then you would probably give yourself over to the sensations of breathing, abiding as a body breathing, with from time to time a passing but beautiful sense of relaxing, the mind quieting, peace growing, opening, being here, being now. Pretty sweet!

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What can I do if I get flooded with thoughts or painful feelings, even traumatic ones, when I try to meditate?

It’s important to build up inner resources for meditating. Buddha’s Brain focuses on inner resources, especially the fourth chapter on taking in the good.

A quick suggestion would be to find something that is reliably comfortable and peaceful in your experience – such as the breath, or an object of beauty, or a saying – and use that as your meditation anchor. Maybe while standing or walking, to reduce the dissociation. And keep disengaging from painful thoughts; don’t fight them, ignore them. And from time to time look at them categorically; in other words, see their nature, the nature of all experience, all phenomenology: transient, made of parts, arising and passing away due to causes, insubstantial, an unreliable basis for lasting happiness; seeing them in this way, they have less weight.

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My mom is 70 and she believes that playing computer solitaire fulfills the goal of mindfulness and meditation – so much so that she’ll receive the same benefits from solitaire that she might otherwise receive through meditation. I do not believe she’s right. What do you think?

Well, with all the respect in the world for your mother – and as someone who works with children and routinely says that a mother’s intuition is gold – I’ve got to come down on your side here.

Sure, the “circle” of mental activities – and thus the neural processes and gradually building of neural structure – of meditation overlaps the “circle” of these while playing solitaire on the computer (or playing other games in other ways), but there is a lot about each circle that is distinct from the other one.
Game playing will strengthen intellectual and other cognitive capacities (e.g., visual processing, perceptual analysis) that meditation will not.

On the other hand, meditation will building other capacities, such as strengthening attention (because of the relatively non-stimulating nature of breath sensations or other common targets of contemplative attention), the capacity to disengage from mental processes to observe them peacefully rather than getting swept away in chasing mental carrots or dodging mental sticks, and insight into both personal psychological material (e.g., the hurt lingering underneath resentments) and the general nature of mental phenomena as transient and usually not worth getting one’s knickers in a twist about. Plus meditation confers many other benefits, including stress reduction, managing anxiety, and reducing the distress and sometimes symptom intensity of many medical conditions. (Check out this slide set from a workshop I gave to psychiatrists for more on this.)

While intellectually stimulating activities such as game playing have been shown to help protect against cognitive decline with aging, preliminary studies have also shown that religious and spiritual activities (which include prayer and meditation – though a person can meditate outside a religious frame and still get most if not all of its mental and thus neural benefits) also offer protections against cognitive decline, here too through overlapping “circles” of factors.

Bottom-line: I say do both! Have fun with solitaire, and find some contemplative practice that suits you. If you like, commit to meditating at least one minute a day, even if it’s the last minute before you fall asleep. And like many things, there is a dosing effect: the more meditation you do, the better for your brain.

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You suggest with negative thoughts in meditation that there are two options:

  1. To invite them in and let them live and breathe and then having been acknowledged, they will disappear.
  2. To bat them away so they don’t act as a distraction.

A problem I have is that if I allow thoughts in they can be overwhelming and I can’t hold my seat, and if I bat them away I feel I am ignoring a deeper, warmer, more emotional part of myself. Can you help clarify this crucial part of my practice?

For negative thoughts during meditation, the two classic strategies are:

  • Open awareness (sometimes called vipassana though that’s a misnomer since vipassana means insight which can be present during many modes of meditation and daily life, and insight can be absent during open awareness) – Allow negative thoughts to come and go, observe them without reaction, ground more and more deeply in relaxed awareness/beingness/well-being.
  • Focused attention – Pull attention firmly away from anything other than the object of concentration/absorption (e.g., the breath). Negative thoughts may persist but dimly outside the field of concentrated absorption.
    The batting away strategy is a detail for the focused attention approach. Sometimes when the mind is quiet we can see distracting thoughts starting to arise and congeal, and we can gently bat them away before they fully “invade the mind and remain” (as said by the Buddha).

It is also possible in meditation, in an open awareness frame, to use the meditative state to investigate negative thoughts to sense down into deeper, warmer, more emotional layers, as you say. The art in doing this is to avoid therapizing oneself and getting all caught up in self-analysis, but also try to get to the bottom of things. Check out the RAIN Method that Tara Brach, James Baraz, and others talk about.

If negative thoughts are overwhelming if you let them in, perhaps best in meditation to focus on concentration methods, and outside meditation engage practices like RAIN.

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How is paying attention to exhaling distinct from extending the exhalation?

During exhaling there is an uptick in parasympathetic activation due to increased vagal inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system, which lets the heart slow down. So increasing the duration of the exhale would naturally increase relative parasympathetic tone.

As to whether the increase of awareness of exhalation distinct from that awareness tending to slow the breath is an open question. I’ve never seen a study on this, but there is a lot that is not yet studied that is still true or useful! It is plausible to me, though without any evidence I know, that increasing attention to exhaling in and of itself would tend to increase parasympathetic tone since neural networks tend to increase their activation when we pay attention to them, including sensory networks, and those increases in activation also tend to ripple through related networks, such as the PNS.

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Does meditation utilize the social circuitry of the brain?

While there are parts of the brain that enable important social functions (e.g., the insula is involved in empathy for the emotions of others), those parts also do many other important things (e.g., insula handles interoception). Saying meditation utilizes the social circuitry of the brain is like saying that meditation utilizes the executive circuitry of the brain, or the sensorimotor circuitry of the brain, or the gestalt processing functions of the brain – which it does. The brain uses hundreds of little capacities, little modules, arrayed in an architecture of complexity and evolutionary recency to perform just about any complex function, from riding a bike or talking with a friend to playing chess or meditating. It’s the function that is the organizing principle, not the underlying neural substrates.

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There are indeed a few cautions about meditation for a few people. If someone is already really vulnerable and unstable, an intensive meditation retreat is probably not a good idea. This is why the meditation centers I am most familiar with (Spirit Rock in California and IMS in Massachusetts) try to screen out people like this. If someone is prone to manic episodes, don’t aim for intensely blissful experiences. If a person is already depressed, just sitting with themselves for many hours of silence each day is probably unwise.

As far as I know, these are the basic cautions. They apply to a tiny fraction of the people who meditate, and a tiny fraction of the settings in which they meditate. If someone is in that tiny fraction of people, be very cautious about prolonged and intensive retreats – and be careful about meditating on your own at home.

As best I can tell, the rest is media drama – essentially saying, by analogy, people with vulnerable legs shouldn’t run marathons. Wow, breaking news.

Just observe your own experience. If your way of meditating is working for you, great. If not, modify it or stop it. Use common sense. 

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Help for Specific Issues

Stress

In your books Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, you mention a variety of methods for reducing stress. Which three methods do you consider generally to be the most effective?

In principle, there are three places we can intervene to make things better: out in the world, in the body, and in the mind. All are important. For example, a person could reduce stress by shifting out a living situation (intervening out in the world) that has stressful roommates in it. In this context, I’ll focus on three methods inside the mind.

Obviously, what is most effective in the mind will depend on the person and his or her situation. And we need to recognize that challenges need not be experienced as stressors. For one person, a promotion with new responsibilities (challenge) could feel demanding, intense, and like a lot of work, but not feel significantly stressful; for a different person, the same challenge could feel really stressful (e.g., body revved up, unpleasant sense of pressure, negative emotions like anxiety or irritability).

In this light, and in general, here are my top three stress-busters:

  • Exhaling – And relaxing the body in other ways as well.
  • Turning toward some authentic positive experience – Washing your hands, eating something good, thinking of something you feel grateful for, smelling something nice, etc.
  • Giving or receiving love – Any form of caring is good here, such as feeling included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved.

We evolved to handle brief bursts of stress for immediate survival purposes, but chronic stress – even mild to moderate – is not good for long-term physical and mental health. Remember that negative emotions are stressful in their own right; it wears on body and mind to be chronically anxious, frustrated, irritated, hurt, or insecure.

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What are the most effective practices for instant stress relief?

  • Activate the parasympathetic wing of your nervous system by taking several long exhalations, at least twice as long as your inhalation.
  • Notice that you are actually basically alright right now. Not perfect, but basically OK.
  • Bring to mind the felt sense of being with someone who loves you.

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What can be done in order to support a shrunken hippocampus? Is there any indication that this shrinking can be undone?

In terms of how chronic stress and thus cortisol can damage the hippocampus, there are five kinds of good news:

  • New baby neurons are born in this part of the brain, encouraged by exercise and stimulation.
  • Existing synapses in the hippocampus can form new connections with each other.
  • Other parts of the brain can compensate, like the prefrontal regions that we can draw on if we slow down our emotional reactions by a few seconds.
  • We can grow other psychological resources, embedded in neural structure and function, such as positive emotions, mindfulness, and wholesome intentions.
  • We can treat ourselves well, with compassion and encouragement and respect – thereby treating ourselves like we matter even if others didn’t (or don’t).

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Anxiety

I often wake up thinking anxious thoughts that seem to come out of a dream state. It can be several minutes before I realize what is happening, and by then I’m already in an anxious mood. What can I do to help this?

You are pointing to a pretty widespread experience that I suspect is due to a combination of low physiological state (prompting anxiety) and dysregulated rhythms of cortisol (rising sooner than it should in the morning). I’ve certainly experienced versions of this myself, typically after an anxiety saturated dream.

As a practice, my suggestion would be to start with awareness of the anxiety as soon as it can be established, and then increasingly bring attention to the embodied sense of the facts of alrightness: breathing ongoing, heart beating, body basically alright, no immediate threat in the bedroom, others nearby (if true), walls still standing, home basically alright, mind proceeding, consciousness happening alright, breathing ongoing, recognizing that the anxious thoughts have little basis in reality, and so forth.

Really open to this benign experience and help it sink in, perhaps doing the “Linking” step in the HEAL process of pairing this reassuring sense of alrightness with the anxious feelings and thoughts so that the reassurance gradually soothes, eases, and replaces the anxiety.

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You’ve said that love and compassion can combat anxiety. How do they do that—and how can we access those feelings more readily, particularly when we feel threatened?

“Off-line,” when you do not feel threatened, deepen the sense of feeling connected by routinely taking in experiences of feeling cared about. Then, at times you do feel threatened or anxious, call up the body sense of feeling cared about. Stay strong with this, being a good friend to yourself, helping your mind stay focused on the sense of having allies, being part of a group, feeling included, liked, and loved.

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What thoughts or suggestions do you have for helping me calm my brain rather than go into fearful mind states when there are sudden unfamiliar sounds?

What works for me is rationally observing that I am in a safe place while emotionally tuning into my body, telling myself again and again that it is alright right now, and intuitively sensing my place in the natural world, my safe belonging in it, and its support for me.

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Is the experience of peace and happiness synonymous with activating the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system? If so, what are the three most successful techniques for activating the PNS?

It’s a great question, since there is sometimes a misunderstanding of the nervous system that equates parasympathetic activation with positive states of being and sympathetic activation with negative states.

Yes, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can foster the calming and easing that underlie many positive states of being. On the other hand, excessive PNS activation leads to the “freeze response” – in humans this is the equivalent of animals playing dead – which can feel like sleepiness, dissociation, inertness, numbing, tuning out, or shutting down, often accompanied by negative emotions such as dread or shame.

And yes, activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can foster fight or flight states of being, often with associated negative emotions such as anger or fear. On the other hand, SNS activation combined with positive emotions such as eagerness, confidence, success, pleasure, affection, and gratification can foster wholesome actions such as cheering on your child in a race, making love, asserting yourself, dancing with your whole heart, or pursuing an ambition.

Overall, a balance of PNS and SNS activation is best. In a culture that prizes SNS activation (and which often stimulates negative emotions such as drivenness or envy), it is particularly important to be strong and skillful in PNS activation. And throughout, keep planting and nourishing seeds of positive emotions, thoughts, somatic states, and desires.

In terms of what activates the PNS, anything that helps you relax will do this. If you want three “go-tos” that I like myself, here they are:

  • Exhaling
  • Touching your lips
  • Hugging someone you care about

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My own personal experience tells me that when I’m upset my speaking voice changes in resonance and timbre. Is there a connection between our emotional state and the physiology of our voices?

I don’t know of any specific research about emotional states affecting vocalization, or vice versa, but I assume there must be multiple studies about these subjects. Stephen Porges has some powerful ideas about the vagus nerve, soothing, and the innervations of this nerve complex into the middle ear so that certain sounds have a particularly calming and reassuring effect; he has one of the interviews in the free Hardwiring Happiness video series I did, that you might like. Also, material on experience-dependent neuroplasticity suggests that positive experiences will over time alter neural structure and function for the better.

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Grief and Depression

Will you share some insight on how to deal with grief?

It seems that there are several points to balance:

  • Grief has its own organic rhythm, its own waves. We just need to ride them with mindfulness and self-compassion. Over and over. There is no schedule to the end of the waves. After a while they do fade, though. Always.
  • Allowing the falling apart can help. Knowing that all eddies disperse, eventually. Knowing that everything has shadows – many terrible things have happened in the past and will happen in the future; not to justify these or be complacent about them, but to regard and feel them with equanimous wisdom. As the 3rd Zen Patriarch wrote: enlightenment is having no anxiety about imperfection.
  • Self-compassion is so important.
  • Sometimes we just cannot bear the grief, like sometimes we just cannot keep carrying a heavy load. We have to set it down for a while. And instead take a walk in a lovely place, eat some good cookies, take a bubble bath, cuddle with a friend, watch a comedy, pet the cat, read a book, something, anything helpful besides the overwhelming grief. And being a friend to oneself to give oneself these respites and chances for rejuvenation, restoration, replenishment, is vital.
  • We need to open to receiving while releasing. To the natural, non-aversive, non-grasping process of receiving fullness – love, gratitude, awe, profundity, the numinous – while experiencing loss (itself a kind of release, a letting go) and all the other losses that come with it.
  • Especially important is receiving the love, kindness, compassion, inclusion and  friendliness of others.

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What are some things that can help when grieving a profound loss?

This is a truly personal experience, so anything I might say is offered modestly.

For me there are three basic ways, and one less basic way, to engage the mind usefully:

  1. Be with what’s there.
  2. Decrease what is “negative” (painful or harmful).
  3. Increase what is “positive” (enjoyable and beneficial).
  4. Step out of the whole business altogether and into the transcendental.

In other words, let be, let go, let in, let free.

When something very challenging happens, often all we can do is ride out the storm, being with our feelings, experiencing them, letting them flow, while also knowing that what is moving through the mind is part of a vast process with many causes. At some point it feels appropriate to shift more into letting go, trying to release those negative feelings. After that it can become possible to let in, which often resources us enough to go back to a deeper layer of letting be. And all the while, if it’s meaningful, there can be an underlying sense of the transcendental in which mind and matter happen and appear.

I might add that being loving in ways large and small during grieving is like a balm to one’s own heart.

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I recently lost my partner, and every time I come across a reference to loving relationships in your book a deep sense of loss stops me in my tracks. How can I move forward, and keep getting value from your work?

With respect, my suggestions would be to:

  • Keep doing your already fruitful practices of taking in the good in general.
  • Knowing that you have had a challenge (putting it mildly) to your needs for “connection” (as given in my model in Hardwiring Happiness), look in general for opportunities to internalize experiences of feeling included, seen, appreciated, liked, and loved, without specific reference to your partner.
  • Skip over passages in books, or sections of the Foundations of Well-Being program (or similar things) that just retrigger your sense of loss and add little or no value to you. Take it easy on yourself for months and even years to come in this regard.
  • Then when the wound of the loss is not so raw and tender, and it is alright for you, you could take in the good of experiences of feeling loved that are more like those you experienced with the person you lost (obviously not replacing them in any way; experiences such as the felt memory of their caring for you, or a loving non-romantic closeness with a partner, or even perhaps when the time comes the feeling that a person you respect is attracted to you). You could also use the Link step of HEAL to hold in awareness at the same time both feelings of being loved today and your sense of grief.

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I’ve lost my job, my world is collapsing around me, and I’m depressed. I see a counselor but also want to know, are there other things I could do to feel better?

It’s obviously normal to be depressed and upset when things are collapsing around a person.

I suggest you talk with your counselor about options that could have more impact for you, from exercise to maybe considering medication. In terms of psychological interventions, I don’t know your situation and I can’t make specific recommendations, but Acceptance and Commitment Therapy comes to mind as something you could look into, just Google it. It’s more or less the Serenity Prayer in action: find your way to peace about what you can’t influence, and do your best each day to influence what you can. You might also find the calming and centering practices in Buddha’s Brain to be helpful.

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Do people with a history of recurrent depression have as much capacity for positive change as those who haven’t?

Episodes of depression do tend to sensitize people and make them more prone to depression. To deal with this, MBCT can help prevent relapse; try not to get depressed about feeling depressive. I also think exercise, complexity, stimulation, and visual-spatial tasks are plausible ways to help rehabilitate a hippocampus that’s been through depression, trauma, or both.

Really taking in the good, especially pleasurable social experiences would also be plausible for reducing likelihood of relapse, in part through sensitizing and perhaps increasing oxytocin and opioid receptors in the amygdala and other key regions. Along these lines, focusing on concentration practices that involve the cultivation of bliss/rapture and joy (including happiness, contentment, and tranquility) could help as well.

Alongside all this, even if you are still vulnerable to depression, other inner strengths could still be developed, such as concentration and lovingkindness.

Have hope! If anti-depressants or related “nutraceuticals” like tryptophan or 5-HTP are helpful for your biochemistry, whatever, it’s skillful means for you and nothing to feel bad about.

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How would you describe the balance between accepting “what is” i.e. negative thoughts and feelings, and trying to shift into more positive states of mind without pushing the negative feelings away?

When balancing letting be and letting go or letting in, it’s important both to not overreact to depressive thoughts and feelings, and to be careful about sensitizing your brain any further to the negative. It’s a balance. So observe your mind flowing along . . . try not go negative about anything negative . . . and fairly soon shift into gently releasing the negative and then really open to and encourage the positive. And remember that you can bring attention to and becoming concentratively absorbed in the positive even when sadness or other feelings are also present off to the side as it were in the mind.

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Would the Taking in the Good process be applicable with people who have attempted suicide or would you recommend that the client have a certain degree of stability before being able to move into that process?

First, a couple cautions:

  • If someone is severely depressed, by definition they are fairly incapable of activating or sustaining an enjoyable experience. As I write in Hardwiring Happiness, with this population I think taking in the good is contraindicated. The one possible exception to this view I offer diffidently: basic experiences of sensual pleasure (e.g., drinking water when thirsty, putting on a sweater when cold, eating a sweet) might be an opportunity to draw attention to a positive experience and – building one second at a time – help the person stay with this experience. This can possibly be a path toward slowly increasing the capacity for enjoyable experiences.
  • The “be with it” phase of practice is really important to honor before shifting into the second (reducing, releasing the negative) and third (growing positive qualities – inner strengths – like self-compassion, gratitude, feeling cared about, emotional regulation) phases of practice. Anything I say here about taking in the good with depressed, suicidal, traumatized, grief-stricken, etc. people is in this context.

With this in mind:

  • Taking in the good – my shorthand term for activating and installing positive experiences – is implicitly used in many treatments for depression and suicidality, so yes, I do think that doing this more explicitly is appropriate for your population . . . with of course good clinical judgment, and an alert eye to the blocks that routinely arise.
  • See if my model of the Avoiding Harms, Approaching Rewards, and Attaching to Others systems is helpful as a way of identifying the key inner strengths that would be good to activate and install in different clients. For example, much suicidality indicates poor inner resources that are loving and encouraging (Attaching system), so developing self-compassion and really looking for opportunities to feel cared about (often in mild yet still real ways) would be relevant “key resource experiences.” Also look for chances to really marinate in reward experiences such as eating a cookie or petting a dog or showering when it’s humid (Approaching system) to build up the sense of life containing enjoyable experiences and reasons to keep on living.

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Does Buddhism condemn suicide? Is depression also sort of viewed as a weakness in the mind that can be cured through vipassana?

Depression is a mind state like any other, and it possesses the classic three characteristics: it’s impermanent, interdependently arising (and thus empty of absolute self-existence), and generative of suffering if one engages it with craving/clinging (e.g., resists it, gets angry or ashamed for being depressed). Many notable teachers (e.g., Mingyur Rinpoche, Dipa Ma), have a history of depression. It’s the pits for sure. But it’s just another mind state. So deal with it as best you can – “ardent, diligent, resolute, and mindful” – from working on your circumstances to improving your biochemistry to trying to release it (e.g., cognitive methods, imagery, venting) to replacing it with lots of taking in the good. While remembering that you have it, it doesn’t have you. Equanimity is a good thing.

About suicide: I am not aware of any quote from the Buddha himself on the subject. It is clear, though, in the Buddhist meta-model, that we always inherit the results of our actions, for better or worse – in this life, mainly, and in other ones, too. My personal opinion is that killing oneself out of kindness (e.g., euthanasia at the end of life in terminal, hopeless, excruciating pain) is one thing, but killing oneself because of inherently transient conditions such as depression is profoundly unkind to the one person in the universe we have the highest duty to, the one we have the most power over: your future self.

Keep going! Don’t give up. You are an excellent person, and will certainly inherit the good results of your good intentions, good actions, and good heart.

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Trauma

Anytime I feel good, something bad almost always follows, so feeling “good” is actually a danger signal. When I work with your material and feel something positive, almost immediately thereafter my trauma material is triggered. How would you recommend dealing with this?

I recognize the issue you raise and usually speak about it in workshops with therapists. Some people need to resource themselves initially (e.g., greater mindfulness, self-soothing, distress tolerance) before deliberately activating and installing enjoyable experiences. Of course, people can use the methods of positive neuroplasticity in Hardwiring Happiness to accelerate the internalization of these foundational resources.

I suggest moving away from the word “good,” which I’m doing more and more myself in my languaging of this material. I use “beneficial” or “useful” or “experiences of an inner strength.”

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In some of your practices you talk about returning to a child-like state, or otherwise bringing some of the attitudes of your child-self into your current self. What about cases where people experienced trauma as a child, and don’t have positive associations with that part of their lives?

The essence of this practice for me is an attitude of sweetness and gentleness toward the younger parts of myself. It’s not so much that I imagine a complete, younger personality inside myself, but that there is a tenderness, understanding, encouragement, and good humor aimed at my softer, younger, needier, more vulnerable, more child-like layers deep down in my psyche. This attitude/feeling is aided sometimes by visualizing or remembering myself as a boy, but that act of imagination is more a way to call forth the sweetness I’m trying to cultivate than the presumption of a coherent little kid deep in my psyche.

Integrating more playful, child-like tones or qualities into your adult life, plus finding compassion and respect and caring for the younger parts in yourself will serve you well!

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If a childhood trauma was the root cause of a current source of behavioral anxiety, then how do I deal with unlocking it? Will this take a little time every day or can there be a more expedient response?

Let’s start by presuming your insight about the root experience/trauma is accurate. There could also be other factors, such as a general inclination toward anxiety, or not much internal sense of protectors or other resources to deal with threats that might “get you.”

In addition to obvious other resources (e.g., psychotherapy), in terms of what I might suggest, you should try the first three steps of HEAL (see my free online resources and/or Hardwiring Happiness) for this, including “key resources” such as feeling protected, sense of grit, seeing threats accurately, and so on.

Building on cultivating inner resources for this issue with just the HEA (Have, Enrich, Absorb) steps, you could try the Link step, in which you hold in awareness at the same time both a relevant “positive” resource (e.g., feeling protected, sense of grit) along with some of the “negative” material (e.g., fear of being injured). Remember to keep the positive bigger in your mind and drop the negative if you get sucked into it. This Link step could be especially useful.

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Could focusing on the resiliency of a person be similar to bringing up a positive experience and pairing it? Is it more impactful to link positive feelings around how a person survived their trauma in the past or here and now experiences of positivity to those negative feelings?

The key is to bring up a rich experience – in this case of a nurturing being – whether it is someone today or someone from the past when the trauma occurred. Just remembering that someone was helpful in the past (you didn’t say this, I am just mentioning this here for clarity) would not have the same impact in implicit memory as bringing up the experience of that soothing in the past, or an experience of soothing here and now.

So I don’t think there is an inherent distinction in the power of experiences of past or present soothing/resilience: past or present could be more or less powerful depending on other details. For example, when I bring up the felt sense of people in my childhood who were really for me, even though that emotional memory is less intense than that of my wife’s support for me these days, in some ways it (the childhood memory) goes deeper since it happened when I was a kid.

My own process is to feel the pain for sure, held in a big open space of awareness when I can, but also really focus on internalizing positive resources (mainly from positive experiences); check out the material on my website on taking in the good. In other words, be with the weeds in spacious mindful awareness while also diligently planting flowers in the garden of your mind/brain. Over time, the flowers will gradually crowd out the weeds.

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Relationships

Does the brain develop primarily due to the influence of relationships?

While the social dimension to life is profoundly important, it is just one of several major influences on the developing brain, especially past the first birthday. For example, the brain is incredibly shaped by a young child’s interior sensations, their engagement with sensorimotor experiences, and by their interior reflections (largely nonverbal) about their world and their self.

When you say to think of someone who loves you, I think it can be quite painful for people who actually can’t think of anyone. Not everyone has someone who truly loves them!

I really hear you about the risks in trying to think of someone who loves you. That’s why I try to always speak in broader terms of looking for ways to feel cared about, and usually list five aspects of being cared about: being included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved. I stress that it is important to look for mild, everyday moments of being cared about in one of these ways, such as your dog wanting to go for a walk with you, coworkers appreciating your idea in a meeting, or a moment of friendliness with someone.

In other words, even if someone has not been loved or has been but can’t feel it, there are still many other ways to feel cared about – which is indeed very important to us as the most social species on the planet. We need to feel cared about in the psychological sphere as much as we need water in the physiological sphere.

I also suggest that people open to feeling caring, since caring is caring whether it is flowing in or flowing out.

Does mindfulness mean being submissive? What is the difference between allowing someone or something to take advantage of you vs. letting go?

When we sustain a mindful awareness of outer events or inner experience, we are actually doing the opposite of submitting to them, in the sense you mean. We are recognizing them as facts – like them or not, they exist – perhaps with a sense of acceptance or serenity, but not letting them control us.

In fact, when we fight with them – like getting angry at having certain thoughts – they are controlling us. And, with the perspective and wisdom that come from awareness and investigation, we can be strong, forceful, even passionate in speaking truth to power – both out there, and (often more importantly) inside our own heads.
What we let go of mainly are our unhelpful, unhappy reactions to things. We don’t let go of recognizing and standing up against injustice, or let go of our legitimate interests.

The main things that take advantage of us are our fearful, angry, self-doubting reactions to things.
Check out my chapter on kindness and assertiveness in Buddha’s Brain, or the slide sets on relationships on my website, and see what you think.

How do I develop an inner protector?

Not being able to find an inner protector is a real fact of the inner of world of many people. Developing one is a matter of committed practice toward one’s own well-being, which will gradually change the brain. Some steps along the way:

  • Look for little natural moments when there is a feeling, no matter how small, of ease, relaxation, loosening of contraction, exhaling, satisfaction of a need (e.g., drinking water when thirsty), sinking into the sofa at the end of the day, crawling into bed, or whatever else. Then deliberately rest your mind upon them, stay with them in awareness, savor them, and let them sink in for a dozen seconds or longer. As you persist in this little practice – several times a day or more – open to it becoming a more general felt sense of settling in the body, feeling more ease, less tension . . . even a growing sense of refuge or a bit of safety in this general easing.
  • Look for moments when others are at all kind, supportive, friendly, companionable, and inclusive, or even valuing, appreciative, affectionate, and loving! Consciously recognize the fact of what is happening. You may personally think you are not worthy of this positive attention or caring, but it is an undeniable fact that the other person thinks you are! Next, gently prod yourself to let this factual recognition become an emotional experience, even a subtle or mild one, of feeling cared about – that you matter even if it’s in a small way. Then, in the same way as before, try to stay with this experience in your mind of feeling liked, appreciated, seen, understood, supported, or loved for a dozen seconds or more. Sense that it is sinking into you.
    If you do these two things, over and over again, you will gradually plant the seeds that will grow into an inner protector.

There are other methods as well, and I encourage you to look into my book, Just One Thing, and its practices on self-compassion, getting on your own side, taking in the good, and seeing the good in yourself.

Hang in there with this. Look out at the world, with its 7 billion human beings, and countless other living plants and animals and microbes on the earth, in the water, and in the air. I am sure you wish those beings well. You would wish that they would have and experience an inner protector (or the animal, plant, or microbe equivalent). Well, you are one of those beings! No different from the other humans, no less deserving of true happiness and its causes, including an inner protector. Much as you would wish an inner protector for all those beings, you could rightfully wish one for yourself. I wish one for you – and I bet so would everyone else who knows you, if they thought about it. It’s alright to join this club!


How do I relate to colleagues when they are not meeting my expectations?

Compassion can live alongside discernment, performance expectations, and assertiveness. You can have compassion – the basic wish that they not suffer, usually with feelings of sympathetic concern – for your colleagues, and you can restrain and release any ill will toward them (including any righteousness or disdain), while also making skillful choices about what you might say and how you might say it.

I am having difficulties getting over the betrayal and rejection I feel when I think of my ex-husband. When going through the “Link” stage of your HEAL process, should my positive thought be one of love from others? I certainly cannot feel any love from him.

It is natural to continue to be bothered by negative thoughts and feelings long after a loss and psychological injury that’s as large as the one you experienced. In my model of the three ways to engage the mind – let be, let go, let in – sometimes it take many months, or even several years, to get through the first two of these. Try not be overwhelmed by the pain.

Then, on the basis of truly letting be and letting go, you can now let in most effectively, such as internalizing positive experiences of feeling cared about by others (e.g., friends, children), and feeling worthy and good in your own being. Then the linking step of holding both positive and negative in your mind will be most effective.

More generally, it helps me get free of my own suffering in relationships when I can see the suffering in others and have compassion for them. This does not mean I approve or let them off the moral hook, just that I also recognize their own pain and difficulties. Besides being benevolent, this seeing of the suffering of others paradoxically helps me feel less upset.

What advice can you give to someone whose partner abuses alcohol?

Alcohol is a problem. If a person can’t do it moderately they can’t do it at all. The AMA considers the upper limit to be 2 drinks/day for men (note that a “drink” is pretty small: 1.5 ounces of liquor or 5 ounces of wine or 8 ounces of beer), or 14 drinks a week. If your partner is past 14 drinks/week routinely and won’t stop, that’s alcoholism.

Are you going to Alanon meetings and/or seeing a therapist experienced in this territory? If not, you should. Also read a good book or two. The core theme is to be compassionate but individuated from the addict.

Your partner’s drinking is about him or her, not you.

What can I do to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped or can’t accept what is offered?

I find myself thinking about the wisdom of people I know who have much more experience than I have with this territory. They stay centered and kind while also establishing clear boundaries, understanding that they can speak truth as they see it from their heart but ultimately cannot make anyone do anything. They also do what’s possible to bring in more resources, such as competent professionals.

What advice do you have for a young man who feels insecure about his body and wants to connect with women?

I suggest you get a good therapist and work through these issues. You describe what sounds like “body dysmorphic disorder,” a catch-all term for irrational beliefs that some or all of one’s body is ugly, broken, tainted, etc. Also, under their exterior, many young men have the same self-doubts as you do, including about intimate parts of their body. I know I did.

I also suggest, with respect, that you think in terms of connecting with young women as a kind of ladder, let’s say twelve steps, with a happy marriage at the twelfth step and casual conversation as the first step. Take it one step at a time. Get comfortable at one step, and then gradually open to moving just one step higher. Don’t focus on steps way above you.

In this context, notice and allow young women to have a positive response to you at the step you’re on. Take in this positive response and the good feelings it creates in you. Use this ‘taking in’ (see my book, Buddha’s Brain, for more on this practice) to fill you up gradually, bringing confidence and slowly healing your old pain and insecurity.

In my model of the ladder, here are the steps (don’t take this too seriously, I don’t):

  1. casual conversation
  2. friendly encounter, like having a real good talk and sense of connection
  3. specific get together, like going to get a cup of coffee after class to keep talking and hanging out together [note that up through this step, things can still be totally platonic, though maybe there is a brewing sense that some chemistry, some warmth for each other, maybe some attraction, could be possible]
  4. clearly warm vibes or event that goes beyond platonic connecting: could be a depth in conversation, or doing something together that goes beyond casual friends like having dinner together or going to hear a band together [note that so far there has been no physical contact other than maybe a casual touch on a shoulder or arm for emphasis while talking, or a casual friend hug]
  5. basic affectionate touch: could be holding hands in a movie or while walking around campus at night, or cuddling on a couch at a party, or a quick kiss
  6. more intense affectionate touch, potentially including sex
  7. being a couple
  8. living together
  9. engagement
  10. marriage

This is about wise view, seeing reality clearly and not being deluded by the legacy of beliefs from childhood. And it’s about being receptive, receiving the gift of women being drawn to you. And they are drawn to you already even if you don’t see it.


You say that the brain has powerful, natural capacities toward intimacy. What, then, do you believe causes some of us to isolate ourselves or feel alone?

Many reasons. Sometimes the longing for closeness led to pain in the past, or we saw this happen to others, or we simply worried that it could happen to us.

The trick now is to risk the dreaded experiences related to intimacy in thoughtful, appropriate ways that are likely to succeed. Then, when things go well (as they usually do), really take in the good of this experience, to help your brain gradually learn that it is OK to get closer to others.

Can “Taking In The Good” help in relationships?

Yes, studies show that for most people most of the time – each day, week, month, year, and lifetime – they are having many more positive experiences than negative ones. Of course, there are important and sometimes tragic exceptions that need to be acknowledged, too, such as people at home and abroad living in terrible poverty, or with chronic pain or depression. The problem is that the brain has a feature that worked great for survival in the wild, but today functions as a kind of design flaw in terms of quality of life and long-term health: the brain generally lets positive experiences flow through while capturing all the negative ones. This is why “taking in the good” is so important: by staying with positive experiences for a dozen or more seconds in a row, we can capture them and weave them into the fabric of the brain and the self.

The noteworthy researcher on marriage, John Gottman, found that happy, lasting couples had at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions (and often an even higher ratio), and found that falling below this 5:1 ratio was a major risk factor for eventual divorce. Without getting into numbers, which could be misleading, the key takeaway point is that much research shows that negative experiences are generally more memorable, more reactive to the body, and more consequential in how we feel and see the world. This is true in all time frames, whether a day or a lifetime. Therefore, the practical steps are: (A) bear negative experiences when they happen without getting all negative about them (which just adds negative to negative), (B) help yourself get through a negative experience as gracefully and as a soon as you can, and (C) really cultivate positive experiences, and when you are having them, really focus on them to take them in.

I was just wondering if you happened to have a “vitamin” for guilt, especially unnecessary guilt.

Great question.

I think the vitamin for guilt is a combination of taking appropriate responsibility for whatever deserves healthy guilt, reminding oneself rationally of what it would be unfair (to yourself) to feel guilty about, and turning attention toward those things that help you feel like a good person.
One of the practices in my book; Just One Thing – Forgive Yourself, goes into this more deeply, so you might like to check that out.

Personally, I do not want to feel guilt past the point that is deserved and productive. Otherwise, it is needless suffering that also reduces my capacity to be of benefit to others.

Will you speak to the process of dealing with a relationship loss?

It is natural for the mind to revisit again and again material related to a loss (e.g., images, longings, thoughts, I-wish-I’d-said). That’s part of the normal grieving process. In meditation and in general, what’s usually wise is to allow the material to be there, take some seconds or minutes to know it for what it is, hold it in a larger space of awareness and interest, and try not to identify with it as “me” or “mine”: it is there in the mind but it is content like any other, such as a sound, sensation, memory, etc. And also for sure bring gentle compassion and kindness to yourself.

In addition to this fundamental mindfulness approach, it can also often be helpful to gently but actively let the loss-related material go, such as focusing on exhaling, reminding yourself that partings are widely common and inevitable ultimately for all of us, bowing to reality as it is whether you like it or not, or mentally saying goodbye to the person.

And helpful to take in, to receive, positive feelings and thoughts of being cared about by others.

You say that forgiveness doesn’t mean changing your view that wrongs have been done, but it does mean letting go of the emotional charge. I’d like to detach myself enough so that it washes over me instead of attaching itself to me, but I struggle with that. Am I just too emotional? Can I really alter this?

My too-short answer is that what works for me is to have an underlying sense of well-being in the first place (nurture yourself), plus a knowing that 10,000 causes are creating this moment, most of them impersonally, plus a sense of the person’s suffering, plus a strong sense of a kind of boundary between me and the other person that recognizes that I am OK over here no matter what streams through the mind over there.

With practice, you can really alter this. Your brain will change for sure.

You write that one survival strategy is creating separations. Why? How do humans benefit from the brain creating this separation?

At a physical level, any living organism needs to create lots of boundaries, both between itself and the world, and inside itself in terms of distinguishing between itself and germs, or distinguishing among different bodily systems and processes. Mentally, organisms – especially the smarter they get, like us – have to distinguish between one thought and another one, one perception and another one, past and present and future, etc. These distinctions are separations. They help us survive. But they also make us suffer since everything is actually highly connected. So this separation-making is tense, stressful, confused in some sense, and cuts us off from wholeness and oneness. Thus suffering. Practice is seeing through these separations, releasing unnecessary ones, and not taking the necessary ones too seriously.

What is emotional blackmail?

For me, “emotional blackmail” has to do with the fuzzy but real line between normal-range efforts to persuade, cajole, influence, warn of consequences, and so on and more manipulative efforts to make someone do one’s bidding. Normal efforts may be unwanted by other people, and could be annoying, weird, or unskillful (the usual messy human stuff) but are otherwise not meant with any kind of evil intent. Contrast this with creepy, intimidating, way-too-pushy, violent, threatening, bizarre, cruel, sadistic, etc. efforts that are simply way out of line. It is the latter that I think of as true emotional blackmail.

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Is remorse a good thing?

I think remorse is good if it is deserved and proportionate and leads to corrective action.

 

How can you take the high ground and 'stay right when you are wronged' when dealing with an abusive partner? That high ground to them only signals weakness.

This is a deep and natural question, one that I’ve mulled a lot over the years.

My two cents is that the more abusive the partner, the more important it is to take the high ground, wrapping oneself in a mantle of dignity, strength, and self-respect. Plus the high road may well include very powerful, even fiery words and deeds. And if this just increases their attacks, well, that seems like pretty unmistakable information that it could be good to change the relationship.
Also, the approach I suggest is not very entwined with what goes on in the mind of the other person. If they want to interpret me taking the high road as weakness, that’s their interpretation, not mine. Also, there are many examples of people taking the high road in face of very, very abusive people and governments – and generally that high road is seen as a very strong move by both abusers and onlookers.

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Holidays

What can I do to minimize holiday stress?

Take care of your body, emotions, thoughts, and actions.

In your body, keep activating the antidote to the sympathetic nervous system and its related hormones (this is our ancient fight-or-flight, stress response system): the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Easy ways to light up the PNS include l-o-n-g exhalations, relaxing the tongue, warming the hands (or imagining that they are warm, like holding a cup of cocoa), and relaxing the body as a whole.

In your emotions, keep turning to the small positive experiences available during the holidays (and during life in general): for example, decorations are pretty, oranges smell good, it’s fun to go sledding, kids are cute, and it feels sweet to make others happy. Then take a dozen seconds or more to savor the positive experience so that it can transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term emotional memory, and thus really sink into you.

In your thoughts, beware “shoulds” and “musts.” The things we do during the holidays are only means to ends: goals such as happiness, love, sacredness, generosity, and fun. If the means get in the way of the ends – as they so often do at this time of year – it is time to lighten up about the means. Keep coming back to simplicity inside your own mind as an end in itself: the simple truth that in this moment, each moment, you are actually basically alright; the simple fullness of being in the present, not regretting the past or worrying about or planning the future.

In your actions, slow down and do less. Keep coming back to your breathing as you look for gifts, do dishes, wrap presents, or visit friends. Don’t let others rush you. Be kind; cut others slack; this time is probably stressful for them. Don’t try to have the perfect Christmas, Hanukkah, whatever. Don’t go nuts with presents. There are other gifts that can be the biggest ones of all: like giving the gift of your full attention to others, rather than being distracted by your to do list; or the gifts of forgiveness, gratitude, and wholeheartedness.

One last thought would be the reflection that the practices of thought, word, and deed that lead to sanity during the holidays sound like a pretty good way to live year round!

How can I simplify the holidays so I actually enjoy myself and my loved ones?

Commit to less. Do as much as possible in advance. Ask others to pick up their fair share of the additional tasks. Don’t get too attached to fixed ideas of how things need to be. Focus on the essentials, the point of the holidays: time off, relaxing, being with loved ones, generosity and gratitude – and if this is meaningful to you, honoring the original spiritual purposes of this time of year.

What does it mean to have a simple holiday?

For me it means having realistic expectations about what you can actually get done, and not over-committing. Alongside, keeping a sense of perspective and humor about the madness of parking lot traffic jams, weird in-law vibes, crazed children jacked up on sugar and other stimulants, packed stores, long lines, credit card denials, you name it.

It’s also good to have realistic expectations about how great one will actually feel. Sometimes we get upset that we don’t feel happier. This is where the wisdom traditions can be real helpful: events and our reactions to them come and go; usually, anticipated pains are not as bad as they’re billed to be, nor are anticipated pleasures as sweet as we thought they’d be. Enjoy what’s pleasant without trying to grab onto it, and get through what’s unpleasant without struggling with it.

What’s it like at your family gatherings?

I try not to play psychologist at the dinner table! Still, learning about how the brain evolved has made me really appreciate how vulnerable we are to feeling stressed and anxious; the brain is tilted in these directions. So I’ll deliberately relax my body if I start to feel stressed, or remind myself about the protections and resources in my life if I start to feel unnecessarily worried about something.

The holidays are notorious for being a stressful time. Why?

Emotionally, we usually bring to the holidays natural desires for closeness with others, giving and receiving, etc. It’s wonderful when these longings are fulfilled, but when they aren’t, that stirs up the stress response system, with associated uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, disappointment, let down, and so on. Plus we often lay holiday tasks on top of our regular workload (e.g., job, housework, childrearing), which makes them harder to get done, and sets one up for feeling pressed and frustrated: not so good.

Will you offer a few other suggestions for implementing your practices through the holidays and the New Year?

The old-fashioned saying that “practice makes perfect” is as true for one’s well-being or relationships, so pick just one thing to think about or do in your mind each day. Keep it simple. But stick with it. For example, drawing on a few practices in my book, Just One Thing:

  • Notice that you truly are basically alright right now several times a day, which would help undo the anxious background murmur we inherited through evolution.
  • Really enjoy your hands, drawing you into more intimate and sensual contact with things around you.
  • “Fill the hole in your heart” by sensing that key positive experiences are sinking down into you and touching places of old lack or pain. For example, since I was a shy and nerdy kid who felt lonely and unwanted, I’ll deliberately sense that experiences these days of feeling included and valued are soothing and feeding the younger layers of my mind. Neurologically, this gradually infuses resources into old wounds, helping to heal them in the process.
  • Take refuge a few times each day in one or more things that are sources of strength, refueling, or inspiration for you. Simply say to yourself, “I take refuge in _______ ,” or just get a feeling of being connected with this refuge, as if it you are already in it.

Whatever your practice is, take a moment to recognize its value for you. Keep bringing it to mind, at least once or twice a day. If you take care of your practice, it will take care of you.


Why is it so easy to forget about the true meaning of Thanksgiving – gratitude?

In addition to being so busy these days, we’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias” that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems. This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a grateful Thanksgiving.

You specifically suggest “taking in the good” and that sounds like something all of us should be capable of doing on Thanksgiving… why does it seem so hard? Why do we prefer to nitpick a son’s haircut or a sister’s attitude toward helping clean-up after the meal?

We’ve got a brain with what scientists call a built-in “negativity bias” that looks for bad news, overreacts to it, and immediately stores it in emotional memory systems. This worked great for keeping our ancestors alive in the wild, but it’s lousy today for happiness, long-term health – and a relaxed and happy Thanksgiving.

We’ve got to take charge of this caveman brain or it will continue to take charge of us.

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What are some simple tips for practicing gratitude on Thanksgiving?

Keep bringing your attention back to simple good facts, such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange. Rest your attention on this good fact, noticing details about it, staying with it for at least a few seconds in a row. Then allow a natural emotional response of thankfulness to arise. Continue to pay attention to this feeling of gratitude for another few seconds – or even longer: it’s delicious.

Taking these few extra seconds will help you weave gratitude into the fabric of your brain and your self. And you can practice thankfulness both on the fly, as you move through your day, and at specific occasions, such as at meals or just before bed.

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Spiritual Practice

Spirituality

What role does following any faith practice play in calming the mind, body and soul?

There has been a lot of research on how spirituality supports physical and mental health. For starters, it usually reduces stress and increases positive emotions and social support; while other activities also do one or more of these things (e.g., talking with friends, exercising), spiritual practice pulls them together in one powerful bundle. Further, the focus on ultimate, transcendental matters in much spirituality gives life meaning, puts death and other difficulties in perspective, and draws one’s mind toward the infinite. If spirituality could be patented by pharmaceutical companies, we’d see ads for it hourly on TV!

Do you think any of the material properties of the universe could provide the basis of a larger consciousness?

My super short answer is I don’t know.

Slightly longer: My personal view is that ordinary awareness – the awareness of cats, dogs, monkeys, whales, and humans (and probably that of lizards, worms, and fruit flies) – is likely fully explainable by the operations of the nervous system, embedded in the body, nature, and in “higher” animals, including us, by culture. I think we are a century or two from this full explanation – it’s that complex and subtle a topic – but that such an explanation of ordinary awareness entirely in terms of the natural frame will eventually be developed.

My personal view is also that material reality includes, entails, requires, and depends upon some sort of currently mysterious consciousness, woven into the fabric of reality itself. For quantum potentiality to emerge into quantum actuality at the emerging edge of now – always and eternally – I think there must be some kind of consciousness, a kind of consciousness that we can barely if at all imagine – which is really just another word for God.

These two views of mine make me deeply grateful for the gifts of evolution and life, in terms of my ordinary awareness, and make me deeply awestruck and humbled by the prospect of and by the sense of each emerging moment of my life and the universe altogether being a passing manifestation of the underlying Divine nature of this other person, this breath, this experience, this word.

What does it mean to be enlightened – does it mean being free of suffering? Can you lose enlightenment?

People define enlightenment differently. I like the expression: sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening, gradual cultivation, sudden awakening… in a lovely circle, or spiral, with no point of beginning or ending. Or the traditional phrase: moments of enlightenment, many times a day.

In early Buddhism, enlightenment is conceived of in four stages, starting with stream entry and ending as an arahant. I like the way enlightenment is operationalized for an arahant: irrevocably (which gets to your query about losing enlightenment), greed, hatred, and delusion (broadly defined) no longer arise in the mind at all, or perhaps arise subtly and occasionally but can find no hold. That’s a psychologically meaningful definition I can relate to.

In effect, we are already enlightened (in the sense of always already having Buddhanature; it’s just obscured by the usual crud) and we have moments of awakening that inspire and purify us. . Over time and with practice, those jewel-like moments become deeper, longer, and more stable, gradually stitching together at the highest levels into a seamless necklace of unconditional love and inner peace. Pretty good news!

Is there an objective reality?

I believe that all this is really happening. Deimos is indeed circling Mars, the Big did Bang, two atoms of hydrogen are happening together with an atom of oxygen in each molecule of water, genes in DNA happen, neurons are actually firing, iron at the center of the Earth is really, really hot and its rotation is producing our magnetic field, etc.

The Buddha never denied materiality, nor Nagarjuna. What’s happening may be empty in the technical sense, but it is still existent. The existence of karma (in this life for sure, and maybe across lifetimes) is central to Buddhadharma, for example. Our descriptions of reality are inherently limited – but so what? The pictures on the menu may not match the meal, but the hamburger still tastes pretty good. It may be a useful practice to regard experience as like a dream – but that is not the same as the ontological stance that immaterial experience and its material neural/biological underpinnings do not exist, which is an absurd and in my view ultimately arrogant position. Materiality was here long before humans, nervous systems, or life altogether.

The wonderfully freeing truth is that life happens. Things happen for 10,000 reasons, most of which have nothing to do with us. Yes we do produce causes, especially through our intentions, but we are also an effect of many other causes. Even if some causes travel across lifetimes, they are not the whole set of what’s determinative in any single life.

All content is empty and impermanent. Place your faith in what endures, in what is still amidst the changes: the nature of things, the unconditioned, the consciousness and love that is inherently entwined in the emergent edge of everything for it to be at all.

What are the unique contributions of being religious to happiness?

“Religious” covers a lot of ground. It would be helpful at the outset to be clear what we mean by this word.

While the average religious person may be happier than the average non-religious person, that’s just about averages. Lots of religious people are unhappy, and lots of non-religious people are happy.

There is tons of science about how all people, religious or not, can affect their happiness. Basically, we can become happier by taking action in the world (e.g., doing crafts with your hands, giving to charity, planting a tree, getting a less stressful job, finding a loving partner), the body (e.g., losing weight, getting exercise, healing an illness, getting enough iron), or the mind.

While I can speak with authority on ways to boost happiness through action in the world or body, my expertise is the mind. In the mind, major factors that increase happiness include controlling negative emotions, controlling stress, savoring positive experiences (which defeats the negativity bias of the brain that makes it like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones), focusing on what one can do (how you’re like a hammer instead of a nail), positive self-talk instead of anxious or self-critical rumination, developing interpersonal skills that produce healthier relationships, gratitude, feeling connected with others, and feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Because of experience-dependent neuroplasticity – a mouthful that simply means that what we think and feel and want changes our brains – the mental factors and activities just above gradually build up strengths in the brain, much like building a muscle. The classic saying in brain science is: neurons that fire together, wire together.
The last three factors just above – gratitude, feeling connected to others, and purpose and meaning – are strong in most religious people, though of course they don’t have a monopoly on them. Your question hits the bullseye: what are the unique contributions of being religious to happiness?

A way to frame this could be, what can non-religious people learn from religious people about happiness? With a point made about how this learning can change the brain for the better.

Religious practice often involves a specific mental activity – focused attention on prayer or meditation: in other words, some kind of contemplative practice – that has good research on how it changes the brain. For example, Christian nuns recalling a profound spiritual experience and thus momentarily lighting up parts of their brains that control attention, tune into oneself, and feel rewarded. Or how the brains of long-time mindfulness meditators are changed in lasting ways, also building up layers of neural tissue in parts of the brain that control attention and tune into oneself. Non-religious people could also take up some kind of contemplative practice, even if they don’t think of it as religious or spiritual, such as meditation on the breath or really focusing on the body while doing Pilates, etc.

There is a lot of research coming out about the benefits of mindfulness training – outside a religious context – for controlling attention, improving response to medical treatment, and increasing happiness.

As a religious person myself – a Buddhist who believes in the Divine – I think there are certain aspects of religious life that you have to be, er, religious to benefit from, such as a sense of a personal relationship with God (by whatever name). I don’t know of any specific studies on this unique factor – though there may be some – but I can speak personally about it and report what others say, which is that it brings a sense of peace and joy.

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In your opinion, does God exist?

I’m not sure there is any evidence, in a scientific sense, in the natural world for God (a term I use broadly). I think a lot of sterile arguments are between atheists and believers about whether there is evidence in the natural world for God; many atheists seem eager, even aggressively so, to pounce on any claim from the theist camp that there is naturalistic evidence for God (or the supernatural in general). I try to stay out of these kind of arguments since as I wrote in my essay on God and the Brain, I think they are intellectually fruitless (and personally frustrating).

I think there either is God or there isn’t. If there is, that seems quite extraordinary and important to me, in my value systems, so it is a priority for me to discern the divine if it in fact exists. As to how I pursue that discernment, it is through both reason and experience.

Reason suggests to me:

  • There are enormous limits to both naturalistic evidence and human reason itself. Just 10 years ago, we were ignorant of 95% of the universe. Who knows what people will have learned a thousand or a million years from now. There is so much we do not know, and there may be so much we can never know. For me it is appropriately modest – and consistent with the culture of science – to not make strong assertions about many things, including the nature of the universe and whether God exists.
  • It is scientifically plausible for some kind of consciousness to be necessarily woven into the nature of physical reality in order for quantum potentiality to congeal into actuality at the leading edge of now. This consciousness is another name for God.
  • Many profoundly wise people throughout history have asserted the existence of God and their union with it, and factually the experience of others around these people is that there is something truly extraordinary coming through them. (I am not interpreting these facts as naturalistic proof for God’s existence, but rather as eyebrow-raisers, as a kind of “hmmmmm.”).
  • There are many examples of people knowing things that seem utterly inexplicable within the frame of science. Throw out 99% of these examples as explainable naturalistically, and that still leaves 1% – and for an existence proof, it takes only one.

Experience intimates to me a personal sense of something benevolent, conscious, sacred, and profound that is beyond my reason.

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Buddhist Practice

Sometimes you will speak about Buddhism without covering the material of it at all. Take these opportunities to provide accurate knowledge and more substantial understanding for your audience; don’t ride the wave of Buddhism as a buzz word.

I appreciated the comment, and I agree that one needs to be thoughtful about exploiting or “riding the wave” of subjects or traditions.

In this context, I’d like to offer that the subtitle for my column at Psychology Today – “practical insights into happiness, love, and wisdom from psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhism” – is a general statement about the territory of my writings here. It doesn’t mean that each post will contain explicit references to each one of these: happiness, love, wisdom, psychology, neuroscience, and Buddhism.

Also, while Buddhism has no monopoly on encouraging love, the deliberate cultivation of compassion, lovingkindness, happiness at the welfare of others, generosity, non-harming, wise speech, and other ways to feed the wolf of love are absolutely central to Buddhist practice. My posts, and those of others, may lack an explicit reference to psychology, neuroscience, or Buddhism while still very much drawing upon those deep roots.

Last, as someone who does teach *about* Buddhism, my personal opinion is that it is also OK to draw *from* Buddhism, explicitly or implicitly, without getting into an exposition of the dharma as a whole. Much of the time that exposition would be off-topic or inappropriate given a particular setting; I think this is generally true about blogs on Psychology Today, including my own. As long as one doesn’t represent some explicit or implicit aspect of Buddhism as the whole of the path, then whatever is conveyed – in this case, the benefits of nurturing love, broadly defined – should be judged on its own merits, and not whether it teaches people about Buddhism altogether.

This paragraph of yours is very important to me: “Feel carried by consciousness, the effortless knowing of perception and thought. When stress, worry, pressure, or pain appear in the mind, see that the fabric of this suffering – the underlying operating of the mind – is itself fine, is always already fine”. But I do not understand how “the fabric of this suffering” is the underlying operating of the mind. If we feel worry, pressure, or pain, how could the underlying operating of the mind be fine?

Thank you for this question. You have zeroed in on a big matter that I tried to describe in one small sentence!

What I was trying to say is that the contents of mind – anger, worry, pleasure, thoughts, perceptions, sensations, desires, etc. – are a part of the mind that may be troubled (even horribly so), but mind as a whole – including the awareness aspects of mind – is usually operating just fine.

So shifting awareness from the contents of mind to mind itself (as a whole) – put differently, shifting awareness to experience as a whole, including its awareness elements – can disengage us from upsetting thoughts and feelings and ground us in a reassuring sense of mind as a whole.

Try this experientially and see what you find. The sense of mind as a whole can be hard to sustain, but keep at it and it will get more stable. Also note that as soon as we (naturally) create a concept of mind-as-a-whole, that conceptualizing is a part of mind-as-a-whole and draws us out of it as a whole. Conceptualizing is OK, but keep letting go of it to open into again and again mind-as-a-whole.

How to you balance equanimity and cultivation?

To use the language of Buddhism there is a place for Right Mindfulness, but also a place for Right Effort. Mindfulness is the doorway to equanimity, which is gradually developed as virtue, concentration and wisdom deepen. Along this path, we also need to pull weeds and plant flowers in the garden of the mind: Right Effort, in other words. Cultivating wholesome states and factors of mind – by activating them, installing them through taking in the good, and then reactivating and reinstalling them again and again on life’s path, in a wonderful positive cycle – is a kindness to oneself and others.

With time, the fruits of this process of cultivation become increasingly second nature, woven into the fabric of the brain, the body, and them mind. Then conscious cultivation – Right Effort – gradually falls away and we abide without effort in spacious balanced peaceful beautiful equanimity.

What do you mean by the “undoing of suffering?”

When you are already everything, already partaking of the unconditioned, and always – in terms of phenomenology, the experience of the constructed world – and feeling the floor of it drop away from beneath your feet even as it is endlessly renewed, well, that is the waking from ignorance and thus the undoing of suffering.

Is the “self” real? What’s the nature of the sense of being that remains when parts of the psyche fall away?

You raise a deep and wonderful question, and its answer depends on how you define “Self.”  I use that word to refer to the central “I” that’s presumed in Western psychology and philosophy (and everyday usage) to be the owner of experiences and agent of actions, and which is defined and constituted by three attributes:

  • Unification – There’s just one “I”.
  • Permanence – The “I” stays the same, things happen to it but it doesn’t change.
  • Independence – The “I” is just there, an innate part of the psyche, not created by anything, and fundamentally not dependent on anything (other than a brain) for its existence.

The fact is that these three attributes that constitute an “I” – unification, permanence, and independence – cannot be found in one’s own experience, nor in the neural processes that underlie I-related activations or representations in the brain. The actual experience of “I” is made up of parts (not unified), continually changing (not enduring), and affected by many factors (not independent). This has been seen in neuroimaging studies. (Check out these two papers in the references at the end of my slides: Is Self Special? and What Is Self-Specific?)

To use the language of Buddhism, the apparent “I” is empty: without substantial, essential nature. Both phenomenologically and ontologically, the presumed “me, myself, and I” is empty. If you like, check out my book, Buddha’s Brain, whose last chapter is about this subject.

In general I think that we can have and value all sorts of experiences of witnessing, integration, beingness, spacious awareness, etc. – experiences of the “self” – while also recognizing that these experiences (and their dynamic neural substrates) are compounded, transient, and dependently arising . . . and thus empty of essence.
Like many others, I’m leery of reifying or substantiating dynamic and insubstantial processes – even vital ones, such as the executive functions, subjectivity (ipseity), or the encompassing awareness that remains when the “parts” step back – into an entity, a being, a self. Trouble and suffering begins when we identify with and try to protect and glorify such an entity.


How do I reduce bondage to the self?

For me, the essence of practicing with self-ing (it’s a process, not an entity) is contained in this pithy comment from a monk whose name escapes me: “Love yourself. Just don’t love your self.” Be kind to the person you are, while not identifying with the self-referential processes occurring in the mind.

I have found personally that if I treat myself well – as well as I would treat a good friend – then cravings actually decrease, and my addictive tendencies are more manageable.

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Could you give some more detail about your background in Buddhist learning and teaching?

Dr. Hanson began meditating and studying the contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism, in 1974. Since then he has sat numerous retreats and received a variety of trainings and mentorings, mainly in the Theravadan strand of Buddhism, from leading teachers in that tradition. He has served on the Board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center for nine years, and has also been on the Board of Tricycle Magazine. Dr. Hanson has taught at a number of major Buddhist centers or organizations, including Spirit Rock, Samye Ling (in Scotland), Sydney Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Nyima Tashi (in Auckland), Southern Insight Meditation, the Australian Association of Buddhist Counselors and Psychotherapists, London Insight, and the Hong Kong University Centre of Buddhist Studies. Dr. Hanson’s books have been endorsed by numerous scholars and teachers in the Buddhist traditions, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Tara Brach, Joseph Goldstein, Susan Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Christina Feldman, Mark Williams, and Paul Gilbert.

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Odds and Ends

Advice for Authors

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How did you get to be such a good writer?

Personally, I got some good advice about writing along the way, maybe boiled down as:

  • Imagine a reader that you are speaking with: who is she? what will help/entertain/comfort/inspire her? what will she want to keep on reading?
  • Structure is your friend.
  • Cut to the chase, get to the point, say what you want to say directly.
  • Write from your heart
  • And the end of the day, know that you have little control over how other and the marketplace altogether will respond to your work.
  • A little writing most days adds up to a lot of writing by the end of the year.

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Other

How much time do you spend on technology each day? Do you think using technology is healthy for your brain?

I use my computer about 3-5 hours a day, some days a lot more. I use my cell phone mainly for calls. I watch TV maybe an hour or so a day.

I think that moderate amounts of technology use are good for the brain in some ways, such as increasing cognitive stimulation for older people. But more than moderate usage has bad side effects:

  • Making people in a sense addicted to high levels of stimulation so that anything less seems boring.
  • Promoting passive consumption of experiences rather than active creation of them.
  • Promoting relationships with many people that are superficial and distant rather than deep and close.


I am having a difficult time understanding your use of the word “fault” in your JOT Admit Fault and Move On. The word fault seems unnecessarily blaming and critical and I wonder if the word “responsibility” might be easier for your readers to take on.

You’re right, different words can land in different ways for different people. In my own case, I think of “fault” in its ordinary sense, including error, causing harm, and responsibility: “it was my fault that the plate broke since I dropped it on the floor.” Personally, I do have faults: I do make errors that are my own responsibility, many of which cause harms. I can use this word without it necessarily implying any sort of inappropriate remorse or shame.

Separately, my personal view is that I am actually not always doing the best I can, nor are others. I see many times where I could have chosen more wisely; I usually see this in the frame of self-compassion and self-guidance rather than self-shaming, so the seeing of my “fault” in these cases ends up helping me feel better about myself than worse.
Reflecting on the common saying – “They were just doing the best they could” – I think there are two levels of meaning to it.

At one level, the deterministic unfolding of reality, whatever happened was determined by preceding causes, so in this sense there was no “better” alternative to what happened.

But at another level, people have a high degree of volitional choice over the causes they set in motion. In terms of values, some of those causes are beneficial and some are harmful. For example, feeding children is beneficial and starving them is harmful. Feeding children is better than starving them. At this level of choices and values, people who starve children are not doing the “best” they can. In more mundane but more common terms, being patient with my children is more beneficial than getting cranky with them; therefore, when I am being cranky with them, I am not doing the best I can.

At this level of choices and values, there is also the dimension of effort. There is a difference between making efforts to set beneficial causes in motion, and not making much if any effort at all. In common experience, we value efforts to cause the good, such as diligence, conscientiousness, and aspiration. Efforts to cause the good are better than no efforts. In this area as well, someone who is not making reasonable efforts to cause the good – to drive safely, to study for the test, to understand his or her partner – is not doing the best he or she can.

In our personal lives, and in society altogether, if we don’t recognize distinctions between beneficial and harmful, effortful and neglectful, better and poorer – or blur or obscure these distinctions with euphemistic language – that’s a steep and slippery slope toward waiving moral responsibility.

So, in a nutshell, what is true at the deterministic level gets mistakenly applied to the moral level if we say – to use an extreme example to highlight the point – “Oh, Hitler was just doing the best he could.”

I chose that word “fault” deliberately, to be a little provocative. I do think that faults occur in myself and others, and actually our discomfort with seeing and naming them gets in the way of clearing them from the space and moving on. If I drink too much holiday wine and start tossing a beautiful dish up in the air and it falls and breaks on the floor, and my wife says, “Hey, it’s your fault that my grandmother’s dish got broken,” I’d have to agree with her. And if I were to say, “Wait a minute, I was just doing the best I could,” and she replies, “No way, that was far from your best,” I’d have to agree with her in this regard as well!

I want to ask you to please not propagate for people to eat meat. Meat is not necessary in one’s diet, and above all there is no justification whatsoever for killing living, sentient beings.

You’re right, there are inherent moral issues in eating meat. I’ve been a dedicated vegetarian twice before.

And – many people, including me, seem to do best eating a diet that is similar to the one that our primate, hominid, and human ancestors ate as they evolved: lots of vegetables, some nuts and fruits, and some meat. This is particularly true for those who (like me and many others) should not eat gluten grains or dairy protein, greatly reducing their options for protein.

Resolving these two things is more than a matter of convenience or inconvenience. Especially for the great many people who do not have the time to do a careful combining of foods to get enough protein through vegetable/grain sources: it’s a matter of real health.

So I named options, which is different from advocating one or another. Yet you could rightly say that naming an option such as cannibalism without moral disapproval is not good either. Are we at the point that naming the option of eating meat is like naming the option of cannibalism (or other morally repugnant actions)? I don’t know. Obviously, moral standards evolve over time, and some things considered morally acceptable a couple hundred years ago are repugnant today; some years from now, people may look back on meat-eaters with the moral repugnance we now feel for slave owners.

So I am conflicted here, and trying to be honest with you about this.

Is animal research ethical? If it is not, is it ethical to report its findings?

Like you, I am very troubled by how humans treat other life on our shared planet. If every species got one vote, I think humans would be gone the next day. As you know, animal research has a history of needless cruelty, and even when conducted by modern standards, the bottom-line is that humans are using other animals as a means to our ends, often with attendant genetic tampering, surgery, stress, suffering, or death. Definitely a violation of the prohibition against harming living beings that is central to my own Buddhist practice, as well as central to many other spiritual or secular ethical traditions.

The question is whether to report the results of animal research, which has vastly furthered our understanding of the human body and mind, notwithstanding its very disturbing origins. Does reporting it condone it? This question doesn’t sit easy with me, I have no glib answer to it. My gut tells me that reporting animal research does indeed imply a valuing of it, and thus in some sense enables it – particularly if there is no balancing mention of the ethical issues in animal research. This possibility of enabling is uncomfortable but good to recognize.

People have different opinions about the ethics of doing animal research, and there is undoubtedly a range of views about the ethics of reporting on animal research distinct from doing it. I respect people’s rights to their views while also being grateful for your prodding and clarifying of my own.