07 Aug Introduction – Using Your Brain to Change Your Mind
This is a book of practices—simple things you can do routinely, mainly inside your mind, that will support and increase your sense of security and worth, resilience, effectiveness, well-being, insight, and inner peace. For example, they include taking in the good, protecting your brain, feeling safer, relaxing anxiety about imperfection, not knowing, enjoying your hands, taking refuge, and filling the hole in your heart.
At first glance, you may be tempted to underestimate the power of these seemingly simple practices. But they will gradually change your brain through what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
Moment to moment, whatever you’re aware of— sounds, sensations, thoughts, or your most heartfelt longings—is based on underlying neural activities; the same goes for unconscious mental processes such as the consolidation of memory or the control of breathing. Exactly how the physical brain produces nonphysical consciousness remains a great mystery. But apart from the possible influence of transcendental factors—call them God, Spirit, the Ground, or by no name at all—there is a one-to-one mapping between mental and neural activities.
It’s a two-way street: as your brain changes, your mind changes; and as your mind changes, your brain changes. This means—remarkably—that what you pay attention to, what you think and feel and want, and how you work with your reactions to things all sculpt your brain in multiple ways:
• Busy regions get more blood flow, since they need more oxygen and glucose.
• The genes inside neurons get more or less active; for example, people who routinely relax have improved expression of genes that calm down stress reactions, making them more resilient (Dusek et al. 2008).
• Neural connections that are relatively inactive wither away; it’s a kind of neural Darwinism, the survival of the busiest: use it or lose it.
• “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This saying from the work of the psychologist Donald Hebb means that active synapses—the connections between neurons—get more sensitive, plus new synapses grow, producing thicker neural layers. For example, cab drivers who have to memorize the spaghetti snarl of streets in London have a thicker hippocampus—a part of the brain that helps make visual-spatial memories—at the end of their training (Maguire et al. 2000). Similarly, people who routinely practice mindfulness meditation develop thicker layers of neurons in the insula—a region that activates when you tune in to your body and your feelings—and in parts of the prefrontal cortex (in the front of your brain) that control attention (Lazar et al. 2005).
The details are complex, but the key point is simple: how you use your mind changes your brain—for better or worse.
There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes the shape it rests upon; the modern update is that the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. For instance, you regularly rest your mind upon worries, self-criticism, and anger, then your brain will gradually take the shape—will develop neural structures and dynamics—of anxiety, low sense of worth, and prickly reactivity to others. On the other hand, if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example, noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself, and letting go—three of the practices in this book—then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self-confidence, and inner peace.
You can’t stop your brain from changing. The only question is: Are you getting the changes you want?
All It Takes Is Practice
That’s where practice comes in, which simply means taking regular action—in thought, word, or deed—to increase positive qualities in yourself and decrease negative ones. For example, studies have shown that being mindful (chapter 22) increases activation of the left prefrontal cortex and thus lifts mood (since that part of the brain puts the brakes on negative emotions) (Davidson 2004), and it decreases activation of the amygdala, the alarm bell of the brain (Stein, Ives-Deliperi, and Thomas 2008). Similarly, having compassion for yourself (chapter 3) builds up resilience and lowers negative rumination (Leary et al. 2007).
Basically, practice pulls weeds and plants flowers in the garden of your mind—and thus in your brain. That improves your garden, plus it makes you a better gardener: you get more skillful at directing your attention, thinking clearly, managing your feelings, motivating yourself, getting more resilient, and riding life’s roller-coaster.
Practice also has built-in benefits that go beyond the value of the particular practice you’re doing. For example, doing any practice is an act of kindness toward yourself; you’re treating yourself like you matter—which is especially important and healing if you have felt as a child or an adult that others haven’t respected or cared about you. Further, you’re being active rather than passive—which increases optimism, resilience, and happiness, and reduces the risk of depression. At a time when people often feel pushed by external forces—such as financial pressures, the actions of others, or world events—and by their reactions to these, it’s great to have at least some part of your life where you feel like a hammer instead of a nail.
Ultimately, practice is a process of personal transformation, gradually pulling the roots of greed, hatred, heartache, and delusion—broadly defined—and replacing them with contentment, peace, love, and clarity. Sometimes this feels like you’re making changes inside yourself, and at other times it feels like you’re simply uncovering wonderful, beautiful things that were always already there, like your natural wakefulness, goodness, and loving heart.
Either way, you’re in the process of developing what one could call a “buddha brain,” a brain that understands, profoundly, the causes of suffering and its end—for the root meaning of the word “buddha,” is “to know, to awake.” (I’m not capitalizing that word here in order to distinguish my general focus from the specific individual, the great teacher called the Buddha.) In this broad sense, anyone engaged in psychological growth or spiritual practice—whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, atheist, or none of these—is developing a buddha brain and its related qualities of compassion, virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom.
The Law of Little Things
Now, if a practice is a hassle, most people (including me) are not going to do it. So the practices in this book involve either brief actions a few times a day—like finding beauty (chapter 17)—or simply a general attitude or perspective, such as relaxing anxiety about imperfection (chapter 46) or not taking life so personally (chapter 48).
Each moment of practice is usually small in itself, but those moments really add up. It’s the law of little things: because of slowly accumulating changes in neural structure due to mental activity, lots of little things can wear down your well-being—and lots of little things can get you to a better place. It’s like exercise: any single time you run, do Pilates, or lift weights won’t make much difference—but over time, you’ll build up your muscles. In the same way, small efforts made routinely will gradually build up the “muscle” of your brain. You really can have confidence, grounded in the latest brain science, that practice will pay off.
How to Use This Book
But you have to stick with it—so it really helps to focus on one main practice at a time. Life these days is so busy and complicated that it’s great to have just one thing to keep in mind.
Of course, it’s got to be the right “one thing.” For forty years, I’ve been doing practices—first as a young person looking for happiness, then as a husband and father dealing with work and family life, and now as a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher—and teaching them to others. For this book, I’ve picked the best practices I know to build up the neural substrates—the foundations—of resilience, resourcefulness, well-being, and inner peace. I didn’t invent a single one: they’re the fundamentals that people make New Year’s resolutions about but rarely do—and it’s the doing that makes all the difference in the world.
You can do these practices in several ways. First, you could find one particular practice that by itself makes a big difference for you. Second, you can focus on the practices within a section of the book that addresses specific needs, such as part 1 on being good to yourself if you’re self-critical, or part 5 on being at peace if you’re anxious or irritable. Third, you could move around from practice to practice depending on what strikes your fancy or feels like it would help you the most right now. Fourth, you could take a week for each one of the fifty-two practices here, giving yourself a transformational “year of practice.”
Whatever your approach is, I suggest you keep it simple and focus on one practice at a time—whether that time is an event or situation (e.g., a ticklish conversation with your mate, a crunch project at work, a meditation), a day, or longer. And in the back of your mind, other practices and their benefits can certainly be operating; for example, not taking things personally (chapter 48) could be in the foreground of awareness while taking refuge (chapter 28) is in the background.
Know what your practice is each day; the more you keep it in awareness, the more it will benefit you. Besides simply thinking about this practice from time to time, you could rest your mind even more upon it by putting up little reminders about it—such as a key word on a sticky note—or journaling about it or telling a friend what you’re doing. You could also weave your practice into psychological or spiritual activities, such as psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, or prayer.
Working with just fifty-two practices, I’ve had to make some choices:
• The practices are super-succinct; more could be said about each one of them. The title of each chapter is the practice. Chapters begin by answering why to do that practice, and then tell you how to do it. Chapter lengths vary depending on their subject.
• With the exception of the very last practice, I’ve emphasized things done within yourself—such as being grateful (chapter 18)—rather than between yourself and others. (If you’re interested in interpersonally focused practices in the Just One Thing (JOT) style, you might like my free e-newsletter by that name at www.RickHanson.net.) Meanwhile, you could apply the practices in this book to one or more relationships, or engage in them with a buddy—such as a friend or a mate—or as a group (e.g., family, team at work, reading group).
• Most practices here involve taking action inside your mind—and of course it’s also important to take action in your body and in the world around you.
• There are three fundamental phases to psychological and spiritual growth: being with difficult material (e.g., old wounds, anger); releasing it; and replacing it with something more beneficial. In a nutshell, you let be, let go, and let in. You’ll find practices for each of these phases, though I’ve concentrated on the third one because it’s often the most direct and rapid way to reduce stress and unhappiness and develop positive qualities in yourself.
• While I experience and believe that something transcendental is involved with both mind and matter, I’ve stayed here within the frame of Western science.
As you engage these practices, have some fun with them. Don’t take them (or yourself) too seriously. Feel free to be creative and adapt them to your own needs. For example, the How sections usually contain multiple suggestions, and you don’t have to do all of them; just find the ones that do the most for you.
Throughout, take good care of yourself. Sometimes a practice will be too hard to sustain, or it will stir up painful issues. Then just drop it—for a while, or indefinitely. Draw on resources for practices; for example, deepening your sense of being cared about by others will help you forgive yourself (chapter 7). Remember that practice does not replace appropriate professional mental or physical health care.
People recognize that they’ve got to make an effort over time to become more skillful at driving a truck, running a department, or playing tennis. Yet it’s common to think that becoming more skillful with one’s own mind should somehow come naturally, without effort or learning.
But because the mind is grounded in biology, in the physical realm, the same laws apply: the more you put in, the more you get back. To reap the rewards of practice, you need to do it, and keep doing it.
Again, it’s like exercise: if you do it only occasionally, you’ll get only a little improvement; on the other hand, if you do it routinely, you’ll get a large improvement. I’ve heard people talk like making efforts inside the mind is some kind of lightweight activity, but in fact it’s always a matter of resolve and diligence—and sometimes it’s very challenging and uncomfortable. Practice is not for wusses. You will earn its benefits.
So honor yourself for your practice. While it’s down-to-earth and ordinary, it’s also aspirational and profound. When you practice, you are nourishing, joining with, and uncovering the very best things about you. You are taking the high road, not the low one. You’re drawing on sincerity, determination, and grit. You’re taming and purifying the unruly mind—and the jungle that is the brain, with its reptilian, mammalian, and primate layers. You’re offering beautiful gifts to your future self—the one being in the world you have the most power over and therefore the greatest duty to. And the fruits of your practice will ripple outward in widening circles, benefiting others, both known and unknown. Never doubt the power of practice, or how far your own chosen path of practice can take you.
I wish you the best on your path!