Tami Simon: You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Rick Hanson. Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist and author of several programs with Sounds True, including The Enlightened Brain, Meditations for Happiness, and a new program on self-directed brain change. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and an advisory board-member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, Rick is the author of a new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
I this episode of Insights at the Edge, Rick and I spoke about how to “install” positive brain states as lasting traits. We also talked about three different ways of working with unpleasant experiences—letting be, letting go, and letting in. Finally, we talked about our needs for safety, reward, and emotional connection, and how to respond in situations when any one of these three needs are threatened. Here’s Part One of my conversation with Rick Hanson on self-directed brain change:
Rick, my own sense is that the idea of neuroplasticity is now fairly well-accepted in the culture as a whole. This idea that our brains can change. But, you’re now writing and teaching about something that you call “positive neuroplasticity,” and I think that this idea is less well-known [and] less well-accepted in the culture as a whole. I wonder, to begin our conversation, if you can talk some about what positive neuroplasticity is.
Rick Hanson: What I mean by that, in a way, is a very common-sense idea. If we grow in any way—if we learn how to be more skillful in our relationships; or, if we become more grateful or kinder; or we become more resilient, stronger—if we become happier in any way, we are growing. We’re changing, and we’re learning. And any kind of growth or learning must involve a change in neural structure. Otherwise, what’s the basis for that learning or growth?
What interests me is how to use what we’re now learning about how the learn change for the better, and frankly how resistant it is to changing for the better. How can we use that knowledge in really down-to-earth, practical ways? So that’s what I mean by “positive neuroplasticity.”
TS: Now, how difficult it is to make substantive changes that change the way our brain [is] wired—I think that probably most people are familiar with that. This feeling that, “Here I am in this same old rut.” So, what I want to know is: how do we change our brains for the better? What are the key things you’ve discovered about this?
RH: Right. I guess the one thing that I’ve discovered is—I’m not sure I discovered anything. What I really highlighted, I guess, is that the way in which our nervous system has evolved over 600 million years has really practical consequences today. Whether you’re trying to help yourself learn to be more patient—you know, when you’re frazzled at work or with family. Or you’re trying to help some insight or some opening or some new state of being—say, during meditation or yoga or whatever, if you’re really trying to help that sink into yourself. The issues around that are very intimate and very real for people in their experience are actually highly affected by the ways in which the brain has evolved.
So, what I’ve tried to do is draw on a century of research and learning—especially emotional learning [on] how we learn to be happier, and also how we learn to be more skillful in our relationships. Emotional intelligence and social intelligence, broadly defined.
What comes out from that research is that learning is, first of all, a two-step process. The first step [is] you actually have to activate a useful mental state. In other words, you need to have some kind of useful experience in the first place. The brain is not like an iPod—it’s like an old-school cassette recorder. So, if we want to record this song—in other words, if we want to change our brain; if we want to get that good feeling inside us or that determination or that insight—we have to play it. We got to experience it first. So the first step is you have to activate a useful experience—a useful mental state, is how people describe it.
Then, the second step is that we have to installl that activate mental state into lasting neural structure, as a positive neural trait. In other words, [in] the familiar of psychology, we have “states,” which are momentary and passing, and we have “traits” that are more enduring. The essence of learning to change for the better is to help useful states of mind sink in to become installed as lasting neural structure.
The problem is that we’re pretty good at having positive experiences—and, also, modern psychology and the spiritual traditions and human potential and everyday wisdom has helped us be pretty good at activating useful mental steps. But, there has been very little attention to how to install these states into your brain as lasting neural traits. The result is that most positive mental states feel good in the moment, but they pass through your brain like water through a sieve. They have no lasting value. They don’t change you. That’s why we can have an experience that gives us some kind of resolution inside—you know, “Never speak in anger again,” or “Never get that drunk,” or “Don’t kick the dog,” whatever—and then 12 hours late, kaboom. We’re back in the same-old, same-old.
So, the research on how to install things into your brain says that there are five basic factors. There are probably a few others, but these five have a lot of impact. The first is duration. The longer you stay with this useful experience—and by “useful experience,” I [usually] mean an ordinary, everyday experiences like getting the dishes done or feeling connected with your friend or a sense of relaxation and calm, or a sense of determination and sturdiness, or drive [and] strength. Whatever it is—an ordinary positive experience. The longer it lasts—that’s duration—the more it sinks in.
Also, second, the more intense it is, the better. There’s a famous saying in neuroscience—I know you know it, Tami—“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So, if you get more neurons firing longer and more intensely, you’re going to get more wiring. And wiring means enduring benefit for you, because now you’re weaving this experience into the fabric of your brain and yourself. So, the second one is intensity.
The third of five factors—and I’ll just do this kind of quickly, here—is called “multi-modality.” It’s the idea that it’s important to feel it. The more that we feel it in the body, the more that the positive experience has an emotional resonance to it. Even—if it’s appropriate—the more that we enact it. The more we move or shift our posture or even our facial expression or tone of voice in the direction of the positive experience, the more memorable it will become, the more we will retain it, [and] the more it will be encoded into neural structure.
The fourth factor is novelty. The brain is a big novelty detector—it’s always looking for something new. That’s why they call it “the news,” right? The more that we can take experiences—especially familiar positive ones, like everyday experiences of gratitude, or connection with our dog, or a feeling of really enjoying the beauty of the natural environment we’re in, [which] can become kind of same-old, same-old. The more we can see them as fresh—as it were through the eyes of a child (you know the saying, I’m sure, “Zen mind, beginner’s mind,” or, “Don’t-know mind”)—the more that they will sink into us in terms of becoming neural structure.
The last factor is personal relevance, or sometimes called, “salience.” Basically, why should I care? Why is this experience relevant to me? Why could it matter to me to grow it inside myself?
So those are the five basic factors proven, shown, or demonstrated in hundreds, if not thousands, of studies on various aspects of learning that will help you install this positive experience so that you carry it with you wherever you go and—bit by bit—fill yourself up with it.
TS: You know, Rick, I don’t want to introduce too many speed bumps into our conversation, but I’m going to bring one right now. You said something I thought was very interesting—that our [brains function] more like a cassette recorder than an iPod. Here I am, talking to you—my favorite neuropsychologist and meditation teacher—and I don’t know what you mean by this. My brain is more like a cassette recorder than an iPod? Help me out here.
RH: Oh, sure. Well, so I [have] a smart phone and it has a lot of music on it. So, like a lot of people, to get the music on it, I just sort of sync it up with my computer [via a cable] (and I can do it wirelessly, too), just  transfers that music over really fast. OK? That’s like an iPod or smart phone.
But, you can’t just stick a cable into your brain and suddenly install the ability to fly a helicopter or do kung fu. You know, like we saw in the movie The Matrix. In the old days, if you wanted to record a song, you had to play it on the radio. You would turn your recorder on while the song was playing and it would record it. Or, if you [have] a VCR or DVR—the show runs, and while it’s running, it’s recording. It’s making an enduring record.
The interesting question here, Tami—and there are a lot of deep spiritual aspects of this that are pretty interesting—[is]: how do we take fleeting, impermanent experiences that are so transient [and] help them leave some kind of useful, lasting trace behind? That’s the real question for me. In a context in which we got a brain that’s really good at fleeting negative experiences into lasting, negative traces inside our own brain.
TS: OK, so let’s just [say] that something positive is happening in my life. I’ve finished a project and I feel fabulous. I’m kicking back, I’m with a couple of friends, and we’re toasting to the success of this project. How would I use these five learning qualities that you’ve identified to really make this positive event last and change my brain in some way?
RH: Yes, exactly right. What’s neat is that I go through this in a lot of ways in this program for you—the Positive Neuroplasticity program.
First step: have a positive experience. And it can be a really big one, like the one you were just describing. That sounds really great. On the zero-to-ten intensity scale, maybe that’s an eight or even a ten. And, life is full—for most people, [though] sadly not for everybody. For most people, life is full of ones and twos over the course of a day. You know, their cat sits in their lap or their dog nuzzles up to them to be petted. They’re thirsty and they get a drink of water. They have to use the bathroom and they finally make it there. They have some relief. They see someone who smiles at them and there’s a moment of warmth there.
So, you’re having it in the first place. Or, instead of just noticing it, you could also create it. For example, you can deliberately think of someone who you feel compassion for or loving toward. Or, you can bring to mind an experience when you were strong. Sometimes, for example, if I’m in a challenging situation I’ll pull up the body memory—I’ll think about rock-climbing, and what it feels like to [arrrrgh] pull over an overhang. I’ll feel in me again that same sense of determination. Or maybe I’ll think about something that I’m grateful for. Being able to self-activate a useful mental state is really foundational to well-being and coping.
So whether you notice it or you’re creating it, in step one [you] have a positive experience in the first place. It’s a little bit like working with a fire. Step one: you light the fire. You have the positive experience going.
Step two: enrich it. Really help those neurons to fire together so they’ll wire together. What that means to me is: help the experience last 10 or 20 seconds straight. Instead of doing the usual thing—which is to feel something pleasant or positive for a few seconds, and then move on to the next thing—help it land. Be nice to yourself. Let it sink in. Let it stay with you for 10 or 20 or more seconds in a row. So that’s the duration factor, by the way, under the general heading of “enriching.”
Now, if you want, you can also help it become a little more intense. You can kind of make it grow inside you. For example, you can help yourself feel even stronger in my little example, or maybe even more compassionate toward the other person. So you’re increasing the intensity [of] the second factor.
The third factor: As much as you can, try to take the idea of the thing you’re grateful for or the time you were strong or the fact that someone cares about you, and try to help that idea become an emotion and a sensation in your body.
Fourth, if you want: Keep being aware of fresh or new aspects in the experience, like different body sensations—let’s say—associated with feeling strong. Or different nuances in the emotion of gratitude.
And then fifth, under “enriching” (the second step): Try to get a sense of how this is relevant to you.
Now, let’s be clear, Tami: When people actually do this, it’s a mush, it’s a blend, we just do it on the fly. It’s far from perfect. But I’m just unpacking these elements so you can see that you got lots of ways to help yourself and help the good stuff stick to you. So, this is the second step—
TS: OK, let’s pause for one moment here under the enriching, because I really want to make sure that this is operational in people’s lives. You mention that a lot of things that we experience—positive moments in our [lives]—they’re just a one to two on the scale. You used the example of going to the bathroom. Great. Are you imagining that people might actually say, “Oh, I feel so great. I just went to the bathroom. I feel relieved.” And it is. It’s a wonderful moment. I’m I going to go through those five steps at that point? Or am I only going—
RH: When I say “five steps,” I’m just listing under one step here—enriching—several ways you can help this experience become bigger in your mind. Perhaps better.
TS: What I’m trying to understand is: is this the kind of thing you would recommend people do in all of the—
RH: Multiple times a day.
TS: Like, a thousand times a day? Five times a day?
RH: Like a handful. You know, my rule of thumb is half a dozen times a day, half a minute at a time. That’s three minutes a day total.
TS: Well, that’s very achievable.
RH: You bet. I love this method. It feels good, it’s quick, it’s based in brain science, it’s authentic. It’s not pie in the sky. It comes from a tough-minded clarity about the ways life is challenging. We got to build up the good stuff inside ourselves. We take charge. It’s also a way to be strong inside your own mind—to take charge of the structure-building processes in your own brain.
TS: Now, I want to stay with an example—it doesn’t have to be going to the bathroom. But it could be something that we all do all the time, like walking outside a building. You’ve been inside a building all day, and you feel fresh air on your face. The air just feels wonderful for a moment. So, this would be an example of a kind of everyday one to two on the ten scale—where I can actually just take 30 more seconds. Just take me through what you might do with the feeling of fresh air on your skin.
RH: Yes, I’ll walk you through it. That’s a great example, because it’s a way to make even a larger point.
So, I’m walking out of the building and I’m probably kind of stressed. Right? I’ve been running around, multitasking, been interrupted. I’ve had to shift gears fast from one thing to another. I’ve had a lot of experiences of things being incomplete—I can’t get them done. And I might even have had some interactions with other people that worried me or were exasperating or frustrating. Does that sound like a typical day at work?
TS: Fair enough. Plus or minus. But yes.
RH: OK. Not horrible, but kind of, “Eegh.” I’m a little stressed. I’m experiencing some stress. Which means—frankly—[that] in my body, my stress hormones have lifted and I’m a little revved up.
So, finally I get outside and I see—as you put it—fresh air. Maybe I see some mountains around me, or I see a tree. Or I even just have a sense of [whoosh], I’m outside of that situation.
First of all, I would try to notice that the facts were good. There are so many good facts in our [lives], we don’t even notice them. So in the first place, I would try to notice the good fact that I’m outside the building. Around me, there are [probably] some things that are appealing—whether it’s blue sky, fresh air, other people, [something] pretty, a tree, what have you. OK. I’ve noticed a good fact.
Second, I try to allow the recognition of the good fact that I’m outside this building to actually become a good experience. So often, we notice good facts—maybe someone pays us a compliment, or we get something done, or we step outside and we’re no longer dealing with that bad situation we were hassling with. Except, we don’t feel anything. We notice it—we’re not psychotic—but we don’t feel anything. So, the second [step] here: I would try to feel it.
And then third, in particular, really zeroed in on your question: Once I’m having a positive experience of relief and stress relief and calming and [deep exhalation]. You know, kind of coming down, falling down, coming into my body. All this is happening within just a few seconds. Now that I’m having it—that’s the first step—in the second step I would try to let myself receive it for five or ten or twenty seconds. Rather than rushing on to the parking lot where my car is, or shifting gears and starting to worry about the next undone task I was going to have to get to, or racing on and planning the next event in my day, I would actually take those 10 seconds—one, two , three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, whatever. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds, maybe, to let it land.
During that period, I would help it last—that’s the duration factor of enriching. I would probably give myself over to it. I would yield to it, as it were.
In the third step, I would prime my memory systems. The third step is “absorb.” So the first one is “have,” the second is “enrich,” [and] the third is “absorb.” I would absorb the positive experience by letting it sink into me. I would literally imagine it going into me like a warm, soothing balm. Or maybe I would just, in knowing that it’s landing inside me, let my stomach soften—you know, to kind of yield to it. I would give myself over to it a little bit. So, hopefully I would increasingly carry with me one bit more of a sense of relaxed centeredness in the days ahead.
So, that’s how I would do it. It’s 10, 20, 30 seconds. No one needs to know why I have that little smile on my face. And then, on to the next thing.
TS: You really believe that brain change could happen if I simply did this six times a day for 30 seconds at a crack?
RH: Oh, totally. There’s a lot of research that cultivation of various kinds—where we cultivate wholesome states of mind—actually leads to lasting changes. Interestingly, most of that research blurs together the activation part of it. People are having the positive experience, but it sort of assumes that people are actually installing it in their brains.
Still, people who routinely do different kinds of practices—even if they don’t help themselves, like I’m trying to do here, with a real focus on the installation aspects, really getting it to sink in and turn into neural structure. Even when people don’t people make that explicit in various studies, they get psychological changes that are enduring—which means there must be neural changes. Over the last five, ten years—with more neuro-imaging with MRIs and so forth—we’re beginning to see literal structural and functional changes in the brains of people who repeatedly do various cultivation practices.
I can actually say that I created a course on “taking in the good”—it has six sessions and a three-hour [length]—and we just finished a study on it, with collaborators from UC Berkley and UC Davis. These are preliminary findings—they’re not peer-reviewed. Disclaimer, disclaimer. That said, there are very substantial results in terms of people taking the course compared randomized, weightless controls and so forth—a very legitimate study—compared to other people in terms of satisfaction with life. Even two months after the course was over. That’s a pretty robust finding, [even] with the small sample that we had. And if you’re getting those kinds of psychological, mental changes, you must also be getting neural structural changes as well.
TS: Now, you use this very interesting word when you were talking about this installation phase. You said that we can yield to the positive experience that we’re having. I thought that was interesting. Yielding to it. Explain what you mean by that.
RH: Yes. It’s funny for me, Tami. You know me quite well and I think—growing up, I was one of the major dorks, and I probably still am pretty dorky. It’s interesting that my own journey ended up [with] this material and a ton of scholarship about evolution, neuropsychology, and the brains of birds and worms, and oxytocin in worms, modern primate brains, da-dadada. The end of all that for me? It’s really brought me home to a kind of intimacy with our own [bodies], where we do yield to the experience. It feels that way.
I know from a third-person perspective what’s happening in our [brains] during this process. But from a first-person perspective—from the inside-out perspective, [as] third-person is outside-in—it feels like letting yourself receive a gift.
It’s funny—we know what it’s like [when] someone gives us a gift and we push it away. Or, we just kind of pooh-pooh it or we don’t really take it. Or, we know what it’s like to eat something and not really notice what we’re eating. We’re kind of unconscious.
On the other hand, we know what’s like when someone gives us a gift—maybe it’s a physical gift or they give us the gift of warmth or lovingness—and we really receive it. We let it come in. We allow ourselves—we are kind to ourselves. We allow ourselves to have it. In the same way [as], say, eating something delicious. Mmmmm! [Laughs] Yum. We allow ourselves to really be there for the experience.
Interestingly, this matter of “being there for the experience”—you know, that’s an enjoyable experience—is very hedonistic. It’s also eudemonic, as it were. It gives us a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And it’s also hard-headed intelligence, because by experiencing in this very soft and kind-to-ourselves way, we’re really yielding to the experience and receiving it in a very yin—or if I can use the charged word, feminine—way. We receive it. We are actually hard-wiring it into our brain.
TS: I’m imagining someone who’s listening, who says, “OK, is the glass half empty or half full?” Well, if I’m hanging out with Rick Hanson, it’s clearly going to be half full and I’m going to appreciate that. But isn’t it also half empty, and aren’t I just painting myself into some “pleasure place” with all the pleasure ninnies? It’s also half empty.
RH: I think you’re getting at a very important point, and I want to be really clear about it.
First part: I’m not talking about positive thinking or looking on the bright side. That’s just—to me—more about activating positive states that are wasted on the brain. They don’t make much difference.
Second point: I’m not at all talking about not seeing the bad. When I use words like “good” or “bad,” “positive” and “negative,” I want to be clear what I mean. I don’t mean it moralistically, I mean it pragmatically. Good being that which helps us be happy or helpful to ourselves and often others. Bad or negative is what makes us suffer and harm ourselves. [It] creates suffering and harm for others too.
I don’t mean that we shouldn’t see that bad. I think it’s incredibly important to see the whole picture. To see the impact on the atmosphere of dumping tons of carbon into it every day. Of recognizing that, in America—one of the wealthiest countries in the world—one in five kids nationwide lives below the poverty line. I think it’s important to really see “the bad.”
It’s like a mosaic—a mosaic with many tiles. But, with some exceptions, most people have a brain that’s biased to overlook the good tiles in the mosaic of life or to recognize them briefly in passing and then move on without feeling anything, and to continually scan for the negative tiles, then react to them intensely, [remembering] them forever after. Because that’s what helps animals survive under very harsh conditions—which was the crucible, if you will, of our own evolutionary journey toward being human today, with Stone Age brains in the 21st century.
I think it’s incredibly important to see the bad, but also to realize that our [brains are] biased in that direction.
The other thing to say here is that I think there are three ways to engage the mind. There are three ways to practice with it. In the first way, we just be with it. We don’t try to influence it. We observe it, we hold the experience in a big space of awareness, we try to step back from it so we aren’t so caught up and identified with it. We feel the feelings. We experience the experience. Maybe we also investigate. We kind of sense down into the softer, more vulnerable or younger layers under the top parts.
OK, we’re just being with it. That’s profound in terms of practice. That’s very central to my own contemplative practice more and more, and I think it’s foundational for everybody.
That said, it’s not enough. We must also—in the second way to engage the mind—help the negative decrease over time and—in the third way—help the positive to grow over time. That’s the wise effort aspect of things, where you reduce the negative and increase the positive. All are important. If the mind were like a garden, we could witness it in the first way, pull weeds, or plant flowers.
Sometimes, we have to plant flowers. We have to cultivate resources or strengths inside us, so we can be with the mind. To just feel the feelings or go into open awareness in meditation, for example—people are totally not prepared for that. There’s a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: “The brain is a dangerous neighborhood. Never go in alone.” So, if we haven’t resourced ourselves to really bear our own pain or stay steady when we open to our experience, opening to our experience can feel like opening a trap door to Hell.
Anyway, to bottom-line it, I think that bear-witnessing or choiceless awareness or just being with the mind has gotten way too overvalued, way too privileged in psychology and psychotherapy in the last 10, 20, 30 years, in non-dual practices, and also in some Buddhist practices. I think that that stance of letting things be and simply witness is profound, it’s fundamental, it’s probably the most important of the three ways to engage the mind. But it’s far from the whole of practice. Sometimes people make it the whole of practice, when it’s really not.
So, if I talk about “the skillful cultivation”—in Sanskrit, as you know, bhavana, the cultivation of wholesome qualities of mind and heart—which is what we’re talking about here. Or at least, I’m trying to talk. I think we’re talking about it.
If I talk about that cultivation, it’s in this larger context in which I’m not trying to resist the negative—because that just creates more negative. And I’m not trying to paper over the negative with the positive, because that doesn’t help anyone. On the other hand, it’s a remarkable fact that most of the wholesome qualities of mind and heart that we want inside ourselves, inside our children, inside our therapy clients or meditation student, or in our political leaders—the wholesome qualities of mind and heart like determination, love, resilience, happiness, positive emotions, gratitude, awe. Those positive qualities—those inner strengths—are mostly built from positive experiences. Positive experiences are the pathway into cultivating the good stuff inside ourselves that we want.
But the brain has a kind of bottleneck that makes it very inefficient at turning these positive experiences into inner strengths that we want, even though positive experiences are the primary source of those inner strengths. What my work’s about a lot these days is helping people to learn how to open that bottleneck, based on a very clear-eyed understanding of the hard things in life, so they can grow the inner strengths inside themselves—in part to deal with those hard things.
TS: It’s very interesting to me that you think—whether it’s in psychology or within certain spiritual approaches—that there’s this bias toward just being with whatever’s happening. I notice that I have that bias. So, I’m curious to know where you think that bias came from.
RH: I can’t speak for other contemplative traditions—and I’m frankly not sure that this bias is present in Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or shamanic spiritual traditions. But in Buddhism—and especially as Buddhism has come to the West, and I think also in some non-dual variations—there’s been a belief that any kind of goal-directed effort—of any kind, including inside your own mind—is somehow dualistic, egoic, and just another kind of craving. I think that that is wrong, and it’s not the traditional teachings, really. Certainly not of the Buddha.
Being able to simply witness what’s there, without interfering in any way, is—as I’ve tried to say—profoundly important. But that pure witnessing is not itself, for example, an ethical view. It’s not itself love for others. It’s not itself the cultivation of happiness or gratitude or inner peace. To grow these things in the mind, that means growing structures in the brain.
Also, simply witnessing often will undo the negative. But the structures in the brain that are the basis, neurally, for anger, greed, delusion, heartache, everyday worry, feelings of inadequacy, feeling hurt, feeling let down, or feeling muzzled (around speaking from the heart)—those neural structures are very resistant to change. They don’t just easily change. We need to make effort to get them to change.
TS: I think you’re pointing to something really important, because what I notice I think my little bit of a sense of discomfort with this idea of increasing the positive is how I’ve seen that used in the culture as a personal ego aggrandizement mission. So, I think that is part of what makes me nervous about it.
RH: Yes, I think that’s a fair nervousness. In my writing and so forth, I’ve tried to honor that pitfall because it is possible for—you know, I grew up in the 60s, right? It is possible to get really jazzed about positive thinking, everything’s bright and shiny, this is the best of all possible worlds, and all the rest of that. “They’re just doing the best they can,” and blah-de-blah-de-blah. So, there’s some pitfalls there.
I think that if we’re trying to cultivate these wholesome qualities inside ourselves, the trick is to be both simultaneously kind and benevolent toward ourselves, much as we would be kind and benevolent to another person. We would wish for our friend—let me just sidebar for a second here, Tami. We would wish for our friend to have a positive experience. Let’s say, of feeling loved, feeling loving, or feeling happy. We would also wish for friend to let that positive experience so she’s gradually, over time, less anxious, less irritable, feels more worthy of love, etc. We would wish that for her.
But it’s so interesting that many people—both in the spiritual side of things or people just functioning in everyday life—would consider it perfectly appropriate to wish that for their friend, but somehow they think it’s inappropriate to with that for themselves. So, part one.
Part two has you let yourself have this positive experience. The trick is to simultaneously let go of it. It’s to let it land inside yourself, while you’re not clinging to it. Then, you’re not falling into the pitfall.
Flip the other way, though. I want to say—probably like you—I’ve known a lot of people who have been practicing bear-witnessing for a long time who are still really difficult to live with. [Laughs] Or work with. They’re not very happy people. And I don’t think they’re particularly wise. Now, they’ve only used only one of the major tools in the toolbox, and they’ve ignored the other ones. So, to me, just as there are pitfalls in cultivation practices, there are pitfalls in bear-witnessing practices.
TS: I’m very appreciative of this point you’re making. I think I might just take another 10 seconds to feel . . . I’m joking with you.
TS: But it’s true, actually! To feel my appreciation. But I want to ask about this third tool in the toolbox that we haven’t talked about, which is, “Now I’m having a negative experience of some kind.” Let’s say I walk outside the building and instead of feeling a cool, beautiful, refreshing breeze, I smell something absolutely terrible—like someone has left some toxic product right outside the door. It’s terrible! What do I do in those moments?
I’m taking, once again, an innocuous example. We could, of course, have much more difficult and painful examples.
RH: Well, if I could, maybe a more everyday is [that] you’re interacting with somebody and they do or say something that feels unpleasant to you. It’s irritating or worrying, or you feel hurt. Maybe you’re talking and they look away from you. Or they interrupt you, or they say something critical, or you’re sharing your feelings and they suddenly start trying to solve your problem. OK?
So, something’s happened [that] stirs up things inside you. This little model I laid out of the three ways to engage the mind, which you could summarize as observing the garden, pulling weeds, or planting flowers—or, [in a real] super-summary, let be, let go, let in. One, two, three.
Your first phase is to just be with it. To notice that you’re upset and to stay with the negative, and not quickly jump on to the second or third ways to practice with your mind. Often—I’m very guilty of this, so I’m particularly sensitive to it. For a long time, especially when I was younger, I would want to get rid of my negative feelings. I would want to cover them over or just get rid of them. But that didn’t work. I didn’t do the first step honorably. I didn’t feel them. I didn’t stay with it. I especially didn’t sense down to the softer, younger wounds and hurts that were turbo-charging what was—on the zero to ten yuck scale—you know, the dog doo outside the front door of the office or the snappish, irritating, snarky comments someone says to me is really a two or three. But it feels like a seven, because it hits that childhood pre-amp that jacks it up. [Whoosh]
If you don’t stay with it and don’t experience it fully, it won’t be effective to let go or let in. At some point, it usually feels appropriate. I think of that as “The Goldilocks Place.” Not too tall, not too short, not too hot, not too cold. It will feel appropriate to move on.
At that point—let’s say someone’s irritated me or they’ve devalued me, put me down in some way. “That’s stupid, what you’re saying, Rick,” or something like that. Whatever. I would go to the second step of trying to release it. So I’m trying to calm my body, [deep exhalation] focusing on exhaling. I’m not trying to suppress or freeze the negative feeling, because that just keeps it. I’m trying to let it go. I’m imagining it leave my body. Maybe I would vent about it a little bit to a friend. I tend to cry more when I feel heartfelt rather than when I feel hurt about something, but maybe there’d be some kind of tearfulness or something in the body. We let it go. Maybe we turn it over to God. We give it over to the universe, perhaps. We let it go.
If you think about it, probably the majority of methods in psychology are about the second way to engage the mind, letting go. Maybe we have some beliefs—this person’s put us down and we make it into this broad catastrophizing, over-generalizing belief that no one will ever love me. Maybe we challenge that belief under the heading of “letting go.”
Then, at some point—and the “some point,” by the way, can be less than a minute if it’s a fairly familiar situation. Let’s say that someone’s put me down. It bothers me for a while. I feel it. [After] a few minutes, it starts to get less—it feels like I can more actively start to release it. I’m releasing it. Maybe this is happening in the back of my mind. A dozen seconds here, a couple-dozen seconds there over the course of a morning. At some point, it feels like there’s enough room to authentically let in, to receive something, to replace what I’ve released (in the third way to engage the mind, the “growing flowers” part). To actually turn toward something positive—and maybe we’ll get into this. Certain kinds of experiences are more effective antidotes to our negative experiences than other ones are.
I think of us as having three fundamental needs. One of them is the need to connect with others. It’s managed by the “attaching to others” system in the brain. So, if I’ve been put down or hurt by somebody, that’s an “attaching to others” kind of problem, so it needs an “attaching to others” kind of solution. So, I would bring to mind other people who love me or care about me; or other times when I’ve been successful, even if this particular person doesn’t like what I do. Oh, well. Maybe it wasn’t so good, but I’ve done other good things that other people have liked and that’s fine. Or I might just have a sense of my friends who like me, period. Or my cat really wants to sit in my lap when I’m meditating. I do a fair amount of “catetation.”
In any case, I would go through those three ways to engage the mind—let be, let go, let in—and, depending on the intensity of how it felt [to me] or how much it hurt me in the very beginning, it might take more or less [time]. But that, for me, is a kind of natural sequence.
I think a lot of people will do the first two. They’ll hold it in mindful awareness. They’ll kind of unpack it as an experience. They’ll do the first way of engaging the mind, with witnessing and just being with it. Then they might even go into releasing. Let it go, let it go, let it go. But they often won’t deliberately help something else to grow inside your mind in the space that’s now been cleared by releasing it. That’s a missed opportunity, in my book.
Plus, it’s kind of hard-headed. As any gardener knows, if you pull weeds and don’t plant flowers, the weeds will come back.
TS: You said there are three different ways that we might be hurt. I was very interested in that, because when you [mentioned] this wound related to not feeling connected, and then we could imagine people that we are connected [to], I was right with you. That seemed to be quite helpful.
What are the other two ways we get hurt, and what are the antidotes in those situations?
RH: OK. So, I’m going to summarize 600 million years of evolution really fast.
TS: That’s what I like! This is the Cliff’s Notes. Give it to me.
RH: I like cutting to the chase. So, if the brain has three levels to it—sort of like the floors of a house—it was built from the bottom up. It has a brainstem, [then] stacked on top of that we have a sub-cortex, and stacked on top of that we have the cortex. The brainstem is linked to the reptile stage of evolution, the sub-cortex to the mammal stage starting about 200 million years ago. And then the cortex is linked to the primate and especially human stage of evolution, starting around 40-or-so million years ago. Especially the last several million years. So, we have an inner lizard, mouse, and monkey.
We also have three fundamental needs. We have the need for safety. Rule One in the wild is, “Eat lunch today; don’t be lunch today. Live to see the sunrise and pass on your genes.”
Our second core need is to get rewards. It’s satisfaction. Whether that’s food, shelter, mating opportunities, we have to pursue rewards.
The third core need we have is around connection. Whether it’s a primitive form of connection, like worms having sex with each other, or more sophisticated forms of connection like humans have in their relationships with each other.
So, [there are] three core needs (safety, satisfaction, and connection) loosely linked to the three floors of the house of the brain (reptile, mammal, and human). You could also say that these needs are managed by three overarching systems that help us avoid harms (in terms of our safety needs), help us approach rewards (in terms of our satisfaction needs), and help us attach to others (in terms of our connection needs). So we have these three systems—avoiding, approaching, and attaching—that, in a way, can be summarized as, “Pet the lizard; feed the mouse; hug the monkey.”
These are our needs. Now, like any framework, there are a lot of examples that cross boundaries. If we are experiencing being threatened—if we’re angry or worried—our needs around safety have often been challenged. What will address our safety needs? Well, if we feel threatened, [feeling grateful] isn’t very helpful. Feeling grateful has to do with getting rewards [or] approaching rewards. But, it’s not very well suited to experiences of feeling threatened or anxious.
On the other hand, let’s suppose someone has dissed you—they’ve been rude to you or dismissive. Kind of mean to you a little bit. That’s your social system that’s been activated there. Your “attaching to others” needs. Well, if that has happened and you get a new bolt lock for your front door, that’s not going to solve your problem. That’s a safety experience. That’s an “avoiding harms” experience. But that doesn’t address the fact that someone has mistreated you.
In effect, if you have scurvy, you need vitamin C. If you have anemia, you need iron.
A little story about myself: [When] I was very young, going through school, I skipped a grade and had a really late birthday. Plus, I was very shy, nerdy, dorky, and all that. I had lots of experiences of feeling unwanted, devalued, dismissed, put down, mistreated, whatever. I had a lot of wounds in the “attaching to others” system. It wasn’t horrible compared to what many people experience, but it still had a lot of consequences.
Now, I tried to meet that need—that particular hole in my heart—my particular kind of scurvy, in effect. I tried to meet that need by going out in the hills around my home and feeling strong and independent, which is a kind of “avoiding harms” resource. But that didn’t work for me. Also, I tried to be successful in school. I tried to do well and accomplish goals. That’s an “approaching rewards” kind of resource experience. That didn’t help me either.
It was only when I deliberately began repeatedly taking in the good—of feeling loved, included, liked, seen, understood, appreciated, etc. That’s when I finally started getting the medicine that my heart really, really need.
What’s useful for people—I think—is to ask themselves, “What’s your vitamin C?” In other words: What, if it were more present in your mind as an [ongoing] experience or as a resource you could tap, [would] make a big difference for you?
You can also ask this question about therapy clients, students in school, your children, what have you. What, if it were present, would make a big difference? What’s your vitamin C?
Then, the natural question comes, “How can I start having more experiences like this?” because you build brain structure out of experiences. You record the song by playing it. So, how could I have more experiences of this inner resource in authentic ways? Then, people start realizing that often they’re having opportunities for those kinds of experiences already. Or, with a little bit of effort they can have more of them. I started reaching out to other people to have experiences of feeling cared about and I also really started noticing when people actually were nice to me. And again, these were not million-dollar moments. These were ones and twos on the ten-point scale. But daily life has at least a few of these.
You can really help yourself. If you know what your vitamin C is, then daily life becomes a fantastic opportunity. When you start having those experiences, don’t waste them on your brain. Take the extra 10 or 20 or 30 seconds to install them, to help them sink into you.
TS: Now, Rick, I just want to be super explicit here. So, if somebody identifies that they have a safety fear or concern that’s triggered—maybe they get bad news about finances or something. Their safety issues are up. What would they do as an antidote or vitamin C in that situation?
RH: Yes. Again, as a framework, I think there are three domains to intervene in. We can intervene out in the world, in the body, or in the mind. They’re not mutually exclusive.
If a person realizes that they have an unexpected tax bill or perhaps you get some bad news from your job that you might get laid off. Naturally enough, your safety issues are stirred up.
I think that there are three domains to intervene in—out in the world, in the body, or in the mind. They’re all important. They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, people act as if intervening in one means you can’t intervene in the other.
So, yes. Intervene out in the world. Do what you can to take care of the financial issue. Also, intervene in your body. Keep taking your vitamins, don’t stop exercising. OK, fine. Check.
Now, in the mind: This kind of threat is naturally going to stir up anxiety inside us. There are a number of key experiences—I call them “antidote experiences”—that really address anxiety. For example, physical relaxation. Do what you can to, for example, register the experience that happens when you take a long exhalation. Or three or four or five exhalations. Or, notice what happens when you deliberately relax your tongue. Both exhaling and relaxing the tongue will activate the parasympathetic wing of your nervous system, which is the “rest and digest” wing of the nervous system. That’s the antidote to the fight-or-flight stress response, sympathetic nervous system.
Maybe you’ve got your own special ways of relaxing, like visualizing a day at the beach or fluffy white clouds. It’s hard to be anxious when the body’s relaxed.
Second, look for opportunities to experience protection. Even if it doesn’t address the problem, it can reduce you anxiety and your distress about it. Take a moment to think about the things in your life that are going to keep supporting you. They will keep being on your side, even if you do have this financial problem. Look around at walls that are sturdy; recognize that you have resources in your life in terms of other people who support you. That can help you feel more protected.
Third, a key experience for feeling anxious is feeling stronger. You know, if you think about it, anxiety is based on a sense of a mismatch between threat and resources. One way to deal with that is to reduce the sense of threat by either changing it out there in the world or changing how you perceive it. Another way to deal with it, though, is to increase your sense of being resourced—drawing upon a sense of your own capacities to cope, like pulling up the body memory or remembering a time when you really coped.
Whenever you activate these positive experiences—whether it’s relaxation or protection or strength—the key point there is to take the extra 10 or 20 seconds to really install it, to really help it sink in. I don’t think any single time you do this will be an instant cure—and obviously, you have to do what you can with your financial problem. But, building up these kinds of resources inside yourself will help you increasingly be able to deal with a difficult problem.
Which actually makes a really important point. To me, it’s important to be able to cope in situations by cultivating positive qualities in the mind, and then helping them sink in. But the real benefit of that is to gradually weave these resources into yourself so that, when difficulties happen, they don’t hit you so hard.
For me, Tami, [the] metaphor is like the keel of a sailboat. As we gradually weave these resource experiences into the fabric of our brain and of ourselves, it’s like the keel of the sailboat gets deeper and deeper and deeper. When that happens—as someone who actually capsized a sailboat that had no keel, I’ve really become a fan of keels. When you have a strong keel, you can go out where the fun is. You can go out into the deeper waters. You can explore more in your own life—you don’t have to hug the shore, play small, muzzle yourself, and dream small dreams. You can actually take bigger chances because you’re more resilient. You’re more able to cope.
If you ever do get banged hard—and we’re all going to get banged hard one way or another in this life, if not multiple times. When you do get banged hard, you’re going to recover a lot more quickly, as you’ve deepened this keel in your water through what we started with in this whole interview: neuroplasticity. You’re actually changing your brain to make yourself more resilient and unconditionally happy. Your contentment, your peace, and your love [are] increasingly not contingent upon conditions. It’s unconditional because you are increasingly carrying your contentment, peace, and love with you wherever you go.
TS: Now, we’ve talked some, Rick, about what I might do if my sense of being connected to other people is threatened. And we’ve talked some about safety needs. But what about this reward/satisfaction drive that I have? As you call it, “The mouse in me?”
First of all, what might threaten the mouse in me and what can I do about it?
RH: Let’s suppose that I failed at something. Let’s say I tried to do something and I failed at it. I couldn’t make it happen, either because I just screwed up or—often, I think of it like trying to grow roses in a parking lot. The conditions were just not there. “That book just wasn’t going to be popular,” or, “That person just wasn’t going to want to be my girlfriend back in the day.” “That boss wasn’t going to promote me.” It just wasn’t ever going to happen.
So, now I’ve had this experience of trying to attain a reward and I’m not succeeding in that. So I feel, naturally, frustrated or disappointed. What can I do? Pretty standard situation.
Again, it’s a complete list, but several [experiences] that really stand out for me as key resource experiences—key antidote experiences—for issues in the “approaching rewards” system are: First, gratitude. Thinking of things that are good in your life—and then, in particular, doing what people don’t usually do when they do gratitude practice, which is usually pretty conceptual for most people. It’s to actually let themselves feel grateful—to stay with it emotionally, in a very heartfelt kind of way. Ten, twenty seconds straight.
Second, overlapping gratitude are experiences of gladness. Things that make you happy, but are not really about receiving a gift [are] the essence of gratitude—a kind of thankfulness. More generally, you’re glad about it. Just thinking about it makes you feel happy. Like, I think about places in the mountains, like Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. If I’m getting drilled at the dentist’s, I go out to Tuolumne Meadows in times when I’ve [gone] hiking and rock-climbing with friends there. And [bzzzz], even though the drill’s going, I’m in a better place. So, thinking about things you’re glad about. And then, again, letting it register as an experience.
Another one is thinking about other goals you’ve accomplished, because in this example we’re using you’ve been thwarted in attaining some goal. You haven’t succeeded at it. So, how about other stuff you’ve succeeded at, large and small? The tricky emails you got out the door, or the children you’ve raised, or the major milestones you’ve put behind you like surviving middle school or junior high school—you’re never going to have to go there again. Those are very important kinds of goals. Also, think about situations you’ve endured and gotten through successfully. It may have been uncomfortable or painful, but you’re still here today.
So, those three are pretty classic, powerful “vitamin C” [resources] for issues in the “approaching rewards” system: gratitude, gladness, and a sense of goal accomplishment.
I see one more, if I could: Physical pleasure. From a biological standpoint, physical pleasure is a fantastic way to take you out of the Red Zone into the Green Zone. Mother Nature doesn’t want us to spend a lot of time in the Red Zone because it’s bad for us. Unfortunately, modern life drags us into the Red Zone of mild to moderate chronic stress a lot. One of the fastest ways to get out of the Red Zone? Like I said, physical pleasure. Looking at something beautiful, listening to something pretty, eating something sweet. Try to be appropriate in your pleasures so you don’t pay a price later, but that’s another good way to experience rewards. Then, when you’re having that pleasure, really enjoy it. Taste that chocolate truffle for 10 or 20 seconds straight in your mouth before moving on to the next thing.
TS: Now, Rick, I have to be honest. There’s a lot I’d like to talk with you about. And I do feel grateful and glad for the time that we’ve had, but I feel a bit like the only way the reward needs I have will be satisfied is if we have a Part Two for our conversation.
RH: It would be an honor, as you know. It’s great to talk with you.
TS: So, we’ll consider this Part One of our dialogue on Self-Directed Brain Change. This is a new program that Rick Hanson has created with Sounds True on how to rewire your neural pathways for happiness and resilience. Rick has also created with Sounds True a six-session audio course and online course on The Enlightened Brain: The Neuroscience of Awakening. He’s also created a series of guided meditation programs, including a program on Meditations for Happiness. Rick is the author of a new book, called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
It really is a pleasure and an honor, Rick, to get to be able to publish your audio work through Sounds True. Thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge for Part One of Self-Directed Brain Change with Rick Hanson.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.