Ask Dr. Rick About:

Modern Life

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.

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.

My question is about resilience and how to find agency in a world where we seem to be failing in so many ways (environmentally, politically).

The issue you raise is at the white-hot center of socially engaged life these days and always. I sure don’t have the answer, though I do have some personal answers. I try to explore some of them in my book, Resilient, including in the sections on “Agency, Make Your Offering”, and “Aspire Without Attachment”. As to the essence of the matter, my personal approach is to sustain wise action with as little “friction” as possible: the damage to oneself and others of getting stressed, anxious, and angry. The art of course is to tap into healthy outrage, fieriness, fierce compassion, moral disgust, etc. without getting sucked into the “poisons” (Buddhist reference) of ill will, hatred, contempt, us-against-them tribablism, etc.

It can be helpful to bring to mind admired models of this sweet spot – badass but not pissed off, alarmed but not immobilized, compassionate toward them but also toward oneself – and then imagine “channeling” them or tuning into some aspect of how in the world they stay in that sweet spot.

Meanwhile, we fight the good fight and do what we can. And stay happy meanwhile; they may have our White House, but they never need to have our minds.

How are you able to include a more diverse population to work with, both in affordability and approach?

Diversity and inclusivity are priorities for Rick and his team. The issue of different kinds of diversity – e.g., class, temperament, ethnicity, educational level, gender, age – among people who use or provide self-help resources is widespread and important to deal with. To address this issue, most everything Rick offers is for free; his paid online products have scholarships that have been used by many people. When he interviews people or teaches with them, he has tried to find diverse voices. In his own teaching and writing, he routinely makes efforts to use inclusive language and examples. We have spent significant amounts of time and money to reach out to people in Africa, Haiti, Sri Lanka, and other developing parts of the world to make his programs and books available to them, and we have taken similar steps with social service professionals and with disadvantaged communities in North America.

These are ongoing efforts and we keep looking for ways to improve them; specific suggestions are welcome. Still, Rick remains an older middle-class white male, which understandably constrains his offerings and his appeal. Given this fact, a person can find different self-help resources offered by others or engage Rick’s resources knowing their limitations. If someone decides to look elsewhere, we certainly respect that choice.

How can I most effectively use your HEAL technique to deal with my anxiety around air travel?

Fears of air travel are really common as you probably know. Very normal. Besides concerns about crashing, there is the loss of control or the feeling of being trapped when the door closes. It’s helpful to be mindful of the specific triggers of the anxiety.

In terms of what you could do, you could use HEAL to:

  • Internalize general resources for anxiety, such as relaxation, feeling loved, and sense of perspective (e.g., the odds of a bad event on your flight are vanishingly tiny);
  • Internalize specific resources for air travel, such as compassion for the other travelers and, ultimately, acceptance of whatever happens;
  • Do the Link step in which you focus on experiences of the resources above while also experiencing, off to the side of awareness, thoughts and feelings related to air travel.

Additionally, you could do a few sessions with a therapist, perhaps hypnotist, to do experiential practices, including the sort listed above, related to travel. I also know people who speak to a physician and take a little medicine before a flight, such as a “beta-blocker.”

Personally, I have a little ritual in which I bless the plane, imagine it surrounded by light, focus on compassion for the other passengers (I want them to be fine, too), and then accept and be at peace with whatever may happen. Works for me!

I notice that you have a lot of offerings on how people can improve their relationships. Can I suggest that you consider offerings for people who don’t have family or fulfilling friendships, who are alone and perhaps lonely?

I appreciate you raising these issues of isolation and loneliness, in the larger context of the disruption of social bonds in America (i.e. the pandemic). I totally agree with you about their realness and impacts, including on the brain.

In The Strong Heart program, the emphasis is on skills for any kind of important relationship (not necessarily family or intimate partner). Though still, if one does not have many relationships at all, there is little in that program that would be relevant.

In Hardwiring Happiness, Resilient, and related online programs, there is quite a lot of material about doing whatever is possible in a relatively isolated life to build up a genuine sense of connection, and internalize these experiences. This of course does not change tough conditions, but it does address what we can do ourselves in those conditions. More broadly, most of the content I offer is about internal practice of one kind or another that is not connected to any kind of relationship.

Loneliness and isolation are tough, truly tough to deal with, and a sadly widespread issue.

What can I do to minimize holiday stress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to have a simple holiday?

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

It’s also good to have realistic expectations about how great one will actually feel. Sometimes we get upset that we don’t feel happier. This is where the wisdom traditions can be real helpful: events and our reactions to them come and go; usually, anticipated pains are not as bad as they’re billed to be, nor are anticipated pleasures as sweet as we thought they’d be.

Enjoy what’s pleasant without trying to grab onto it, and get through what’s unpleasant without struggling with it.

Do you think people over-complicate the holidays? If so, why?

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

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

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

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

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

When I reflect on ``What is true... what is real...?`` I feel very challenged: where to begin when it's a matter of perception? How do we determine what is TRUE/REAL when every individual creates their own unique reality based on perception?

First, let’s make some clear distinctions: I think there is an objective reality – in other words, facts – independent of our descriptions of it. For example, if a tree falls in the forest, it falls in the forest no matter whether anyone sees it or hears it. Whatever is happening in the center of our earth is what is happening there no matter whether anyone knows what it is.

What is real and true is real and true even if our knowledge of it is limited and our descriptions are shaped by culture or emotion. Reality is distinct from our perceptions of it. People describe facts in different ways. But just because our descriptions are limited and sometimes erroneous does not mean that facts are not facts!

Each human has a unique individual perception of reality, but reality is universally true. Just because we disagree about perceptions of reality does not mean that there is not an actual reality, nor does it mean that it is not knowable. Think of the zillions of ways that people do recognize reality: Is there water in the glass or not? Is the light green or red? Did the kid do her homework? Also think about the progress in science and education in which humans have gotten vastly clearer in the past few centuries about what is actually true.

Second, some descriptions of reality are more accurate than others. Saying that the earth is round is more accurate than saying it is flat. Saying that the crowds at Obama’s inauguration were bigger than those at Trump’s is more accurate than the reverse. Saying that Russia manipulated our election to favor Trump (as all 17 of our intelligence agencies have concluded) is more accurate than saying they did not.

Over time, people reveal how credible their descriptions of reality are. People who are usually accurate are more credible than people who are not. People who place a high value on telling the truth are more credible than people who routinely lie. People who admit their errors and correct them are more credible than people who do not.

We discover what is true and real by patient observation. You can trust yourself. What do you see? What did you hear? What is happening in front of your nose over time? Who is getting richer? Who is stagnating economically or getting poorer? Is the planet warming up? Are there more severe weather events? Who is trying to count all the votes and who is trying to stop the count? These are things we can see plainly.

Third, a lot of our descriptions of reality are probabilistic, in which we estimate the chances of something happening, such as a car crashing into us on the freeway. The actual chance of something – if we could run an experiment in a jillion parallel universes and then find the average percentage of times it did in fact occur – is an objective reality, but our estimate of this chance is a description of things.

It could be that your husband’s estimate of the chance of an accident is higher than yours. His estimate could be more accurate than yours, or yours could be more accurate than his. But part of what is at issue is an estimate of the chances of a bad event, and clarifying this could be helpful.

It could also be that your husband’s estimate of the consequences of a car crash are more awful than yours. His estimate could be overly tilted toward the negative or yours could be more tilted toward the positive. But another part of what is at issue between you is an estimate of how bad or costly the consequences of an event would be.

Fourth, we have values that are independent of the facts and our descriptions of them. As a general principle, your husband might value caution more than you do. I’m not saying what value is right; reasonable people can have different values; it’s a personal choice, and not a matter of what objective reality is. But just because we have different values, does not mean that we share different realities. We live together in one shared reality, in which we have multiple individual descriptions and values.

How do you trust your intuition and gain courage when everything around you is falling apart, even globally?

It’s natural to feel stressed and overwhelmed by it all. My suggestion at times like this is to make a clear list of what you can actually do each day, and focus on that. Take the steps you can. It’s classic advice for a reason, it’s profoundly true. Time is like money: spend it where it will help you most. For example, if you want to make a painting, set aside the time to do that and protect that time. Disengage from what you can’t change and focus on what you can. And then find confidence and refuge and self-respect in knowing that you are making honorable efforts and also making progress where you can. Action and clarity can really help when we feel stuck in a fog; they are not the only things – self-compassion and perspective and calming help, too! – but they are important pieces, and under our control.

How can meditation be used as a tool when people are suffering from basic survival issues?

This is a deep, vital question. My own take is that mindfulness itself does not, will not, solve social problems like poverty and racial injustice. We need to do other things as well (and I’ve sure got my own opinions about that, including voting).

People can also use related practices such as meditation as way to avoid dealing with real issues of all kinds.

This said, mindfulness practices can help people develop the inner stability that fosters greater resilience for dealing with whatever they’re facing. And as one’s personal well-being improves at least a little, sometimes their view can widen and see more clearly the problems around them, and feel more resourced inside to be helpful to others.

Can you help shed light on how we live our aspirations whilst not being selfish?

Check out the Aspiration chapter in my book, Resilient.

In brief, healthy aspirations take into account our duties to others…and to ourselves. To simplify, duties are “have to” while aspirations are “want to.” Also check out Mother Nurture and my writings about sharing the load fairly when kids come along.

This said, in many people’s lives (though sadly and often unjustly, there are many exceptions), after handling duties there is still attention and time and often other resources available for personal aspirations – especially when we consider the power of many little moments of practice, and the power of relatively small amounts of time each day – 15 minutes? an hour? – that really add up over months and years.

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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