Learn As You Go

Learn As You Go

Are You Growing?

The Practice:
Learn as you go

Why?

I was recently asked about my top five inner practices for 2019, and here they are:

By “learn as you go,” I mean that each day is an opportunity to take in the good: to help useful or enjoyable experiences sink in and become a part of you. Then when you go to sleep, you’ll be a little stronger, a little more resilient, a little wiser, a little more loving, a little happier than you were when you woke up in the morning.

This kind of learning is not memorizing a multiplication table. It’s emotional learning, somatic learning. It’s becoming more skillful with the world around you and the world inside you. It’s social learning, motivational learning, even spiritual learning. It’s healing from the past and growing strengths for the future. It’s becoming more compassionate, confident, patient, capable, and joyful. This is the learning that matters most. If things fall apart, what’s already inside you is what you can really count on.

I grew up in a stable and loving home, but for a variety of reasons I was still very unhappy, awkward, and messed up inside. I didn’t know what to do and it seemed hopeless. Then about age 15, there was a big turning point when I realized that no matter what things were like at the present time, I could always look for ways to learn and grow from there – to get more skillful, to heal, to grow. I didn’t need to despair because it was in my power to develop myself in some way each day. To learn how to talk with other kids or not be so irritated by my parents or deal with my crazy thoughts. To learn how to make my way in the world. And that was full of hope.

We can’t do anything about the past but – to quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek – the future is an undiscovered country. It’s full of possibilities, including the possibilities in who you are becoming. No one can stop you from learning. And no one can do it for you – which makes the results authentic, and yours to own.

How?

We’re having experiences all day long, but what actually sinks in? Usually, it’s the moments of stress and sorrow, anxiety and anger, hurt and resentment. Meanwhile, all the many experiences of gratitude, accomplishment, friendliness, feeling cared about, wholesome pleasure, insight, and commitment pass through us like water through a sieve. This is due to the brain’s evolved negativity bias, which makes it like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones.

To beat the negativity bias and grow more of the good inside yourself, there are just two steps – but you have to do both of them.

Two Steps
First, you need to experience whatever you want to grow. Such as insight, intention, skill, satisfaction, calming, easing, soothing, or vitalizing. Second, that experience must leave a lasting physical trace behind in neural structure or function. Otherwise, there is no lasting value, no healing, no growth, no learning.

The first step is usually easy. Most people are having many mildly pleasant or useful experiences each day and just have to notice them. And we can also create beneficial experiences, such as calling up the feeling of compassion or determination, or remembering what it feels like to be with someone who cares about you.

Second, once the “song” of that experience is playing in your inner iPod, turn on the recorder. This is the step that people routinely skip in everyday life, and that therapists and coaches, and teachers (including myself) can fail to do when working with others. But if we miss this step, we’ve wasted the experience on the brain.

There are lots of ways to use the power of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity” (that’s a mouthful) to turn passing experiences into grit and gratitude and other inner strengths hardwired into your nervous system. (For a summary, check out my book Resilient.) Try one of these or all three of them:

  • Stay with the experience for a breath or two or longer. There’s a famous saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The longer you keep them firing, the more they will tend to connect together.
  • Feel it in your body as much as possible. This is not about remembering specific events in your life, but about receiving the residues of lived experience into yourself.
  • Focus on what is enjoyable or meaningful about it. As the sense of reward in an experience increases, dopamine and norepinephrine activity in the brain tends to increase as well. This flags experiences as “keepers” and prioritizes them for long-term storage.

You might take these two steps only a few times a day, usually less than a minute at a time. But bit by bit, synapse by synapse, you’ll be growing happiness, love, and wisdom inside yourself.

Some Profound Implications
This practice is simple, down-to-earth, and natural. It’s also profound in a couple of ways.

First, experiences are continually changing; as Francis Bacon wrote: “We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand-and melting like a snowflake.” Yet you can help them leave enduring tracks behind as they pass through consciousness. Remarkably, you can get lasting value from the melting moment even as you let go of it.

Second, as you take in the good over time, you feel increasingly filled up from the inside out. Then it feels like there is an enoughness of need met already, even as you cope with challenges. This reduces our biologically rooted tendencies toward “craving” based on a sense of something missing, something wrong. As we grow an unshakable core of resilient well-being, there is less push inside to fight pain or chase pleasure, or cling to other people.

Then our footprint on the world and others becomes lighter, and we also become harder to manipulate with fear or greed or “us against them” grievances and rivalries. We should certainly act to improve conditions in the world. But that is not sufficient – as we can see in the example of many privileged and affluent people who still see threats around every corner, can’t stop piling up more wealth no matter the cost, and dehumanize and bully others. The sense of enoughness must land in the heart and take root – and if it does in the hearts of enough people, that will change the course of human history.



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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