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.

 

Why do people 'beat themselves up'? Does it serve any hidden purpose? I read that a person can become fearful forever after they experience fear because of someones anger. What process is behind that?

I think people beat themselves up – which is different from healthy guidance of oneself (which includes appropriate winces of remorse or shame) – for two reasons: too much inner attacking, and too little inner nurturance. These two forces in the mind are out of balance. Why? Multiple reasons, including individual differences in temperament (some people are more prone to anxiety or grumpiness). But for most people the primary sources are what they have internalized (especially as a child) from their family, peers, and culture. Then, once harsh self-criticism has been internalized along with insufficient internalization of self-nurturance, beating oneself up can take on a life of its own, both as simply a habit and as a way (that goes much too far, at considerable cost) to avoid the possibility of making mistakes or looking bad in front of others.

Whole networks of neurons and related and complex physical processes (e.g., neurotransmitter activity, epigenetic processes) are the basis for acquiring fears, including because a person has been on the receiving end of much anger from others. In other words, learning occurs: emotional, social, somatic, motivational, attitudinal learning: enduring changes in neural structure or function due to a person’s experiences. Check out Joseph LeDoux and the learning of anxiety and fear.

The amygdala also flags experiences as personally relevant, with a bias in most people’s brains toward flagging what is negatively relevant. Then the hippocampus gets involved, tagging that relevant experience for storage. (I’m simplifying a complex process, that also involves other circuitry in the brain.) The amygdala and hippocampus have receptors for various neurochemicals, including oxytocin, and over time these subcortical parts of the brain (two of each, on either side of the brain) can be modified by our experiences; in effect, they “learn,” too.

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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.

 

I've recently discovered neuroscience, and in the process, someone promoted brainwave optimization to me. Does this work or is it a scam? Is it the lazy man's way to work on neuroplasticity?

Regarding brainwave optimization, brainwaves just track what is happening, they are not causally beneficial themselves. This said, personal practices (e.g., taking in the good, meditation, relaxing while walking the dog) can optimize brainwaves. I think you are referring  more specifically on neurofeedback and things like Holosync that are essentially biofeedback devices/programs aimed at the brain. Generally, I think they are great IF they work for a person. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

From a pragmatic standpoint, bottom-line, does something help or hurt, including compared to alternatives. And of course, once a practice of any kind, including with brainwave devices, has induced a beneficial state (thought, feeling, etc.), be sure to internalize it so it has lasting value, woven into your nervous system.

 

I was a students the Art and Science of Mindfulness course at Esalen last month. I am wondering if you have a recording available of a guided meditation of your HEAL framework like you led us through in the workshop?

In the Foundations of Well-Being the Learning Pillar has several practices that cover the steps of HEAL. Here are the links of the audio for those:
Also, I have extended guided practices in the audio version of my book, Hardwiring Happiness, that you might like (chapter 10 is pretty much three chapters worth of guided practices).

For some people self-caring/self-compassion work is quite difficult, they feel worse not better. A few years ago when I was in a highly distressed state I experienced this kind of paradoxical response and I understand how upsetting it is. I don't have that response now, but looking back I'm frustrated that I don't have as clear of an understanding as I would like about how the change in my response came about. It has also been studied that when people with high levels of self-criticism are exposed to compassionate imagery, instead of the insular and the anterior cingulate cortex being engaged (which would create a soothing response) the amygdala is activated and the threat response is experienced. That certainly makes a lot of sense; this is a neural pathway problem. So, my question is; in those with the undesirable neural response described above, what can to done to elicit the desired response and inhibit the undesired one?

1. The direct way to grow a psychological resource is to experience (“activate”) it in order to “install” it. But sometimes that is challenging or upsetting. So we grow factors of this resource through experiences of these factors that are more accessible. Let’s say the direct experience of self-compassion is hard for the reasons you very insightfully identify. But the experience of a factor of self-compassion – such as the concept that justice applies to oneself as well as to others, or the capacity to calm the body when upset – might be within reach.

2. In order to tolerate resource experience Z, we may need to grow resource Y . . . but perhaps experiencing Y is also reactivating and challenging. So then we grow resource X that enables us to experience and grow Y so that . . . we are now able to experience Z and thereby grow it. For example, training in mindfulness (X) could promote the capacity to experience body sensations in general without being flooded (resource Y), and developing this Y could enable a person to experience self-compassion (Z) more directly.

The distinction between 1 and 2 blurs in practice. The main difference is that 2 is more deliberately and planfully sequential, and is a road map for therapists and also for people in general.

There is a body of thought and writing that promotes the 'power of the sub-conscious' and 'positive visualization'. You may recall recent publications like 'The Secret' and other such ideas like the 'law of attraction'. I am interested in how these ideas relate to - or compare with - what you have learned or even proved in the science of positive neuro-platiscity. Is there any merit in the 'law of attraction' or 'positive visualisation'?

Let’s think about it at two levels: (1) what’s called the “natural frame” of ordinary reality and (2) whatever may lie outside of it, which I’ll call the supernatural.

Inside the natural frame, there is lots of evidence that imagining our goals and having related experiences can build up inner resources, woven into our body (mainly the nervous system), that can help us achieve our dreams. Of course, we need to take skillful action as well. Think of the old line: “genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.”

As to whatever might be supernatural, my personal opinion is that there are such factors, and who knows, it could be helpful to a person to open to, invite, and draw upon such forces.

This said, I think that most if not all of the factors that shape a person’s life are to be found inside the natural frame – and there is plenty of opportunity there for psychological healing, everyday well-being and effectiveness, self-actualization, and spiritual realization. So personally that’s where I focus – including in my own practices of imagining and giving myself over to that which calls my heart.

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!

How do you keep the 'Compassion Well' from drying up in these days when there is so much suffering from the barbaric actions of individuals who I believe are genuinely evil and/or barbaric?

You get at a big issue, how to keep the heart open without getting overwhelmed and burned out. So relevant in so many situations, from caring to young children or aging parents, to fighting the good fight for social justice and a world without war.

I don’t have all the answers, for sure. Personally, I let myself disengage when it’s too much, fuel myself when I can, and try to see the big picture. I think of this saying (close paraphrase) from Nkosi Johnson: “Do what you can where you are with what you’ve been given in the time that you have.”

Meanwhile, I also keep trying to let go of the experiences washing through awareness, not sticking to them or them sticking to me.

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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”

I have never really understood what is meant by mindfulness.

For me, mindfulness equals sustained present moment awareness. Period. That awareness can narrow to a tight focus or go really wide, and it can focus more on the inner world or the outer world or both at the same time. Other mental factors/contents promote mindfulness, such as attention regulation and self-compassion. Other mental factors/contents can operate beneficially alongside mindfulness, such as relationship skills while one is speaking mindfully with a friend. And mindfulness plus other mental factors can produce good learning/development, such as insight into oneself as a fruit of mindfulness.

I just read an article 'Is Mindfulness Safe?' by Ruth Baer and Willem Kuyken from the Oxford Mindfulness Center at the University of Oxford. Is this a credible source and is mindfulness with the gurus like Jon Kabot-Zinn, Jack Kornfield and many others a very safe thing to learn how to do? I felt confused after I read this article but am a big believer in mindfulness and know you support it. i just found the article a bit unsettling.

The article is thoughtful and thorough, and makes good points, sort of like your dentist having you sign a form acknowledging the risks of getting a cavity filled.
This said, in general, both formal and informal evidence is that for most people, the benefits of mindfulness vastly outweigh the risks, which are next to nonexistent for a typical, reasonably balanced and integrated person.
If an individual is fragile for whatever reason, or has a significant trauma history that could bubble up, or is prone to peculiar or even psychotic mental processes, then that person should be cautious about using mindfulness in everyday life to explore or “uncover” the murky depths of their psyche, and very very cautious about intensive practice in a workshop or meditation retreat. Most of the examples of mindfulness being problematic involve fragile people in intensive practice. It’s a little like having a fragile knee: maybe it’s fine to use it for a walk in the park but don’t go skiing moguls.
If spooky thoughts or other material bubble up as someone opens mindfully into themselves and it gets overwhelming, many people are readily able to “change the channel” by opening their eyes, going for a walk, eating a cookie, talking with a friend about it, etc. Of course, be reasonably cautious, etc.
Also, “mindfulness” is often equated with and reduced to only a probing inquiry into oneself, but mindfulness simply means sustained present moment awareness applied to something, which could be the whole of a person’s consciousness, the focused sensations of breath at the upper lip, the play of emotion over the face of a friend, or the big truck driving next to you on a rainy highway. Just because the use of mindfulness in a certain way (e.g., deep meditation) could have risks for a certain person doesn’t mean that person would not be benefitted by using mindfulness in other ways.

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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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 I started out in the human potential movement, then got a near Master’s in Developmental Psychology, then a Master’s inClinical Psychology with an emphasis on family systems plus Jung, then a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the Wright Institute which was heavily psychodynamic. Plus along the way, I got a lot of training and education in Buddhist psychology, especially its Theravadan roots. In a weird way, all these diverse influences were helpful. I suspect that like a lot of therapists, I think developmentally and psychodynamically, and act in a cognitive-behavioral way in a field of attention to the relationship between the client and me – while hoping for a measure of luck and grace!

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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 inexpens