Mind in Life

Mind in Life

The Seven Steps to the Highest Happiness

I’ve hiked a lot in the mountains, and sometimes a friend farther up the trail has turned and looked back and encouraged me onward. Such a friendly gesture: Come join me . . . watch out for the slippery ice . . . you can do it! I’ve often thought about those moments when I’ve written about the heights of human potential– being as wise and strong, happy and loving, as any person can ever be. If those heights are like a great mountain, awakening is the magnificent journey that carries you along toward the top. Many real people have gone very far up and I imagine them turning with a sweet smile and beckoning us to join them. 

Those who have climbed this mountain come from different cultures and have different personalities, but they all seem alike to me in seven ways. They are mindful and kind; they live with contentment and emotional balance through even the hardest times; they are whole and authentic, and present here and now; they speak of feeling connected with everything; and a light shines through them that does not seem entirely their own.  

You might have your own examples of inspiring people. These individuals are models to us of what is possible. I’ve known some of them myself. They are down-to-earth, humorous, realistic, and supportive – not the cartoon-like stereotype of exotic characters in caves making cryptic pronouncements. They have no interest in celebrity. Some have taken a spiritual approach while others have been secular. Their realization is genuine, and it’s the result of the path they’ve traveled, not some unique transformation that’s unattainable for the rest of us. They demonstrate that wonderful ways of being lie ahead, that accessible paths lead onward, and that much as their own efforts were fruitful, ours will be, too.

And, remarkably, you can see some of their qualities already deep down inside yourself, even if they’re sometimes covered over by stresses and distractions. These ways of being are not reserved for the few. They are opportunities for all of us – and we can explore how to develop them in these seven practices of awakening:

  • Steadying the mind
  • Warming the heart
  • Resting in fullness
  • Being wholeness
  • Receiving nowness
  • Opening into allness
  • Finding timelessness

There are many traditions, which are like many routes up the mountain of awakening. Nonetheless, on each of these routes, we find those same seven steps taken again and again

The complete development of these seven ways of being marks the pinnacle of human possibility, which could be called enlightenment or full awakening. Meanwhile, even the first simple sense of them is very useful in everyday life. For instance, while dealing with stressful challenges, it’s so good to rest in the fullness of feeling already peaceful, happy, and loved. And whether it is for the beginning of the path or its end, today we have an unprecedented opportunity to explore a kind of reverse-engineering of awakening that is grounded in the living body.

Aiming High

Neuroscience is a young science. Still, we can study the examples of those who have gone far up the mountain and ask: How do you do that? What must be happening in your body so that you stay centered when things are falling apart around you? What changes in your brain help you be compassionate and strong when others are hurtful or threatening? What is the underlying, neural basis for engaging life without craving, greed, hatred, or delusion? 

There aren’t yet neurologically definitive answers to these questions. We don’t know everything. But we do know more than nothing, and emerging science can highlight and explain plausibly beneficial practices. And when the science is unclear, we can still use ideas and methods from modern psychology and the contemplative traditions. 

One of the things I find most inspiring about the great teachers throughout history is their invitation for full awakening. The routes they’ve charted travel from the dusty plains into the foothills and mountains and then highest peaks of enlightenment. Even in the early stages, you can find real benefits for everyday well-being and effectiveness. Still, the ultimate possibility is the complete liberation of mind and heart, with the highest happiness and most sublime peace.

This is an excerpt from Neurodharma

Learn the new science and ancient wisdom for being as wise and strong, and happy and loving, as any person can ever be, in this book from Dr. Rick Hanson – now available!

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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