Ask Dr. Rick About:


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.

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.

Can you recommend any work on the neuropsychological or neurophysiological aspect of meditation?

My daughter has a serious problem doing math. Are their methods to solve problems doing maths?

From what you say, it sounds like your daughter may have “dyslexia,” or perhaps a simpler problem with “visual processing.” Reading problems are very common, both among children and adults. If you think about it, reading is a very unnatural thing to do. In fact, no one read until about 5000 years ago when written language began to develop! So it is normal to have difficulty with it.

There are many approaches for addressing issues with reading, depending on the underlying causes. Sometimes a child simply needs glasses. Other times the issue is with “visual discrimination,” with rapidly discerning the small differences between little squiggles such as “p” and “g,” “d” and “b,” or “x” and “+”. Often there is an issue with “auditory discrimination,” with tracking the rapid changes in speech sounds. The first step is relating those phonemic units to letters and syllables in words. Commonly, the deep source of reading problems is a difficulty in relating visual processing to auditory processing, to rapidly associating the shapes of squiggles on a page (e.g., letters, syllables, words) to the sounds that are the basis of the oral language one learned as a young child before later learning to read (visual language).

This probably seems very complicated, and perhaps overwhelming. But really, most reading issues work out over time. What is important is to understand it is not the child’s fault, and that reading and related school activities can feel embarrassing and stressful for a child – so she needs extra understanding and nurturing, extra compassion and kindness.

I suggest you speak to the people at your daughter’s school and see what resources they can offer. By law, even if a child is going to an independent (private) school, she has access to the services of a public school if she has a significant learning issue. Informally, her classroom teacher might make some adjustments. More formally, the school could form a “student study team” to coordinate their efforts for her. Most formally, your school district could develop an Individual Educational Plan (IEP).

Additionally, it is often very useful to work with people privately, outside of the school system – people who work for you and who are accountable to you – such as a psychologist, who can administer tests to assess what is actually happening and what the causes are, or a learning specialist, who can work with the child individually. There are helpful literacy programs, such as Slingerland or Lindamood-Bell.

As you take these actions, step back every few months and try to evaluate whether they are helping. In a hypothetical example, if your daughter has a general intelligence in the top fifth of children her age but her scores on reading tests are usually in the bottom fifth (and this doesn’t improve over time, even if her reading ability improves), the large gap between her ability (general intelligence) and performance (reading skills) is not getting any narrower. When there is a lack of improvement over several years, everyone involved needs to pause and figure out what to do differently, and not just keep doing the same old things.

At home, it usually backfires to put pressure on a child related to reading. Be sure to make reading fun rather than a scary and stressful chore. When reading with her, you could gently encourage her to try to sound out some of the words, almost as a kind of game, but if she can’t quickly figure out a word, just tell her what it is so she can get a sense of the sentence as a whole, the paragraph as a whole, and the story as a whole. Reading should be rewarding – otherwise she will not be motivated to make the effort to get better at it.

Most of all, stay focused on big goals such as a love of learning, feeling good about herself, developing abilities that are not related to school (e.g., understanding others, music), and a comfortable low-stress relationship with her parents. These are more important than being a good speller or a fast reader. Sometimes people chase improvements on test scores that come with great costs to overall well-being and relationships. There are many successful, intelligent, and happy adults who function very well in the world, and who also continue to find that reading large amounts of text is slow and effortful, and who find other ways to get their information.

Keep reading in perspective and take the long view, rather than getting trapped in fixating on short-term goals, such as this week’s spelling test.

How did you get to be such a good writer?

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

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

Can you offer some insight or guidance on how I should pursue a career/graduate work/degree in neuroscience and psychology?

My own path has included a solid PhD in clinical psychology, and then a lot of self-study in neuroscience and contemplative practice, and then a fair amount of developing material at their intersection.

A key question to start with is whether you want an academic career or a clinical one, or a hybrid (hybrids are often the most fun). Or to put it very pragmatically, what sort of training is going to land you a tenure track appointment as an assistant professor somewhere you’d really like to work, or – alternately – give you the education and training that will enable you to pass the licensing exam as a psychologist (or neuropsychologist)? Or enable you to do both?

As to details, I actually know very little about the specifics of different programs. My intuitive encouragement is to aim high, and be willing to work hard for a few extra years: those costs will be amortized across the length of your career while the benefits of that extra work will compound exponentially. Sometimes it makes sense to do a mainstream program while building up your particular interests on the side. If you are an undergraduate looking to get into a graduate program, know that getting involved in research is critically important to being admitted to many graduate programs. So I’d look for any practical way to get involved in research opportunities at your college.

A key point if you are interested in preserving the option of a clinical practice: check the licensure requirements for the state(s) you want to be able to practice in, and make sure that your program will fulfill them. For example, many states are moving toward requiring American Psychological Association (APA) approval for PhD and PsyD programs that will count toward licensure.

Do you have any suggestion on where to study for an advanced degree in Counseling Psychology?

Work backwards from the result you want. Specifically, do you want to get a license to practice psychotherapy/counseling? If you don’t want to get a license, you can get just about any kind of MA or PhD that interests you. If you want a license, then you need to make sure that the institution and degree will qualify you for the license (along with supervised hours and passing a test).

Unless you have clear reasons not to, I’d encourage you to get a license. Then you are in the mainstream of mental health providers, also with access to insurance reimbursement for your clients. If you are aiming for a license, here are some suggestions:

  • Check the requirements in the province(s) or state(s) in which you want to practice. They can vary.
  • Degree programs that qualify people for a license are pretty standardized, so the apparent differences between programs are less important – except that it’s really important that your school have strong support for helping their students get access to internships, which is generally 3000 hours of supervised experience.
  • Since these programs are pretty standardized, a smart strategy is to surrender to their requirements, just get through them, and use them as the platform for more specialized interests.
  • Once you are licensed, and even before that, clients do not generally ask what the name of your degree is (counseling psychology, clinical psychology, somatic psychology, etc.), so this is of less importance.

As a mature-aged person, should I go directly into a PhD program in psychology and skip the masters?

PhD programs are generally a 5-year process, including the dissertation, compared to 2 years for an MA. After either degree, you’d have to acquire 1500 supervised hours, which adds at least a year before you can take the licensing exam; it’s a slog, no way around it.) If you did an MA and then transferred into a doctoral program, you’d probably be able to shave a year or so off of the duration of that program (for ~ 6 years total instead of ~ 5 if you went directly into a doctoral program).

Public universities are very competitive at the doctoral level in psychology. Independent colleges (like CIIS in San Francisco) are more willing to take in people who can pay their higher tuitions.

Summing up, if you want to be a “Dr.”, the most direct path would be to get a PhD or PsyD from an accredited college, and get started as soon as possible.

For me, I am very glad to function at the doctoral level. The licenses (Masters or doctoral) usually have the same scope of practice, but the clout and standing you have in the real world are pretty different.

Additional Resources

Additional Resources

Continuing Education – Dr. Rick Hanson online courses

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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