Rick Hanson: Hardwiring Happiness -- Rewiring Our Brain to be More Compassionate and Happy
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Nov 4, 2017
Guest: Rick Hanson Host: Kozo Hattori Moderator: Preeta Bansal
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday we host conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, speakers whose personal journeys awaken and inspire our innate spirit of service. Thank you for coming together to plant seeds for a more compassionate society.
Kozo Hattori: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. Welcome to this morning's Awakin Call. My name is Kozo Hattori and I'll be your host for our call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these call is to share stories and to tell stories. Stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life who inspire us through their actions to live a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space. Today our special guest is Rick Hanson, someone who really embodies today's theme of hardwiring happiness, rewiring our brains to be more compassionate and happy. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves.
Thank you. Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call today in conversation with Rick Hanson. Here's how the call works. In a few minutes our moderator, Preeta Bansal will engage in a deep dialogue with our speaker. And by the top of the hour we'll roll in Q&A and a circle of sharing where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue so at any point you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it’s your turn to speak. You can also email us at email@example.com.
So today's theme is hardwiring happiness, rewiring our brains to be more compassionate and happy. And we have the pleasure today of a remarkable moderator, Preeta Bansal. I really admire Preeta because a lot of hardwiring happiness has to do with making changes and bringing in the good. Preeta’'s done some radical changes in her life, to change for a more happy, compassionate, service-oriented life. She stepped down from many of the high position roles she had and she moved back to Nebraska to be with her family and to support her sister, and just to see somebody who has actually made these big steps to change the patterns in her life and change the neural-networks in her brain to be more loving and service-oriented, I really admire that. Preeta I'm so happy that you can be our moderator today. Any thoughts about today's conversation?
Preeta Bansal: I'm just really excited to be in conversation with Dr. Hanson, who is such a legend in this area and really his work is fascinating in that it combines science and ancient wisdom. So I'm really excited to be in conversation with him. So, by way of brief introduction, Dr. Hanson is a clinical psychologist and he's a celebrated author of several New York Times bestselling books that have very broad reach. Some of them are available in 26 languages. Among his books are Hardwiring Happiness, which focuses on the new brain science of contentment and confidence and calm; Buddha's Brain which focuses on the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom; Just One Thing, which talks about developing a Buddha brain, with one simple practice at a time. And Mother Nurture, where he focuses on a mother's guide to health and body-mind and intimate relationships. Many of his books including Buddha's Brain have been praised by leading wisdom teachers including Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach and many others. The book shows readers, outlines not just theory, but shows people effective ways to light up brain circuits to relieve worry and stress, and promote positive relationships and inner peace.
As I mentioned, his work is fascinating, as it’s at the intersection of three circles which are brain science, psychology (including clinical psychology) and ancient contemplative wisdom. He's developed a lot of practical tools to help us transform our brains. He offers for free a fascinating e-newsletter called Just One Thing which has over 20,000 subscribers. And it suggests practices grounded in brain science, positive psychology and contemplative training. And he also has online courses, and resources available on positive neuroplasticity that anyone can do. So welcome, Dr. Hanson. Really delighted to have to you here!
Rick Hanson: Preeta, it is really a pleasure. Also, please call me Rick. Also, hello Kozo.
Preeta Bansal: Great.
Kozo Hattori: Just to clarify, Just One Thing has over 120,000 subscribers.
Rick Hanson: Yeah, it’s actually 121,000 but who’s counting, you know?
Preeta Bansal: (Laughs) Great. I would love to hear a little bit about your journey and what brought you to the place that you are, operating at the intersection of these three circles. I thought maybe we could start with that. There's obviously, as I mentioned, three circles: psychology, neuroscience and contemplative practice. You were a brilliant kid obviously. I saw that you had entered college at the age of 16 and graduated summa cum laude. So how does a kid that is so focused on, you know, the brain and science, how do you, how did you come into contemplative practice?
Rick Hanson: Well, I think your question is humbling actually. And it’s the right place to start. And to be clear, I feel more than anything else I've been on my own personal journey, and meanwhile I've been very interested in helping others. One reason why I was very moved to be part of this call and what you are all doing. The intersection of the personal and political definitely goes back to my roots in social change and human potential movement in the sixties and seventies actually when I landed in college. So talking about and it and framing it in this way feels really right to me. I'll try to keep it super-short. You know, “the long strange trip” it's been, to quote the Grateful Dead, my own life. I grew up in an ordinary way. A middle-middle class, lower-middle class family in the suburbs of Los Angeles, West Covina if anyone cares. And I think for a lot of people, me included, there are these things you know when you are little, that you cannot put into words and yet they stay for life. You know something that's true. And you're moved in some way. And for me when I look back on -- I have many many recollections of my early childhood and when I look back on them, including through my teens as well, I just see this repeated, recurring sense, a wistful, longing sense that there is so much more unhappiness than there really needed to be. And how people dealt with each other and family and my school, watching the grown-ups from there, knee-high, I could see there was so much needless bickering, tension, hassle, struggle, fear, etc. etc. than there really needed to be. And then I wondered why there was so much unhappiness and also why and how we could create more happiness and that sort of set me on my way.
So I would say in terms of my own journey, I started with what could be called psychology especially rooted in the human potential movement. Late in college, I got very interested in contemplative practice. I thought, “Wow, what do those people know that my ordinary, conventional, very basic background wasn't telling me?” So I got interested in eastern philosophy and religion which got me into meditating when I was...in 1974. That's when I really started on my journey. And then I'd been really interested in the brain, but in the seventies, there wasn't that much useful information about it.
Neuroscience is a baby science, but in the last twenty years, as the field has exploded, so has my own deep dive into it. And so I've gotten very, very interested in what might be called tongue-in-cheek, called ‘Applied Neuro-dharma’. I just think that at the intersection that you were saying, Preeta, of those three circles, there is so much really cool stuff, including the notion of artificial consciousness or artificial intelligence as well. There are so many skillful means, so many practical things we can do, based on our growing understanding of the black box between the ears, the three pounds of tofu-like tissue inside a coconut, and then based on understanding it better and better we can intensify or personalize or accelerate ancient wisdom practices that have been handed down to us, by people who didn't know what was happening in the body.
To finish here, there's a lot of emphasis in my own home tradition, which is Buddhism, especially its roots in the original teachings of the Buddha, there's a lot of emphasis there on being mindful of the body. And yet it's profoundly transformative to recognize also, that we are in effect ‘body full of mind’ and when you take into account the ways of the body, especially the brain, which is continually constraining, conditioning and constructing the stream of consciousness -- that takes you into some very awe-inspiring and also practically useful considerations for how you can gradually use the mind to change the brain, to change the mind for the better!
Preeta Bansal: Wow, there was so much in that. It is so incredible to think about not just mindfulness of body, but about being ‘body full of mind’. I really love that flip, I haven't heard that before, so that's just beautiful. You talk about the brain and mind, and I think you also mention the brain constricting and constraining the stream of consciousness. It's a complicated set of concepts, but I'm wondering if you might be willing to just take a crack at distinguishing between what you mean by the brain versus the mind versus consciousness.
Rick Hanson: Yeah no problem, you know the mind-body problem bedeviled philosophers and others for hundreds of thousands of years, yeah, no worry (laughter) So, about myself, to be clear, I'm a method guy. In other words, I'm a clinical psychologist by formal training and license, and while I consume a tremendous amount of research, I'd fairly say I produce very little. So, I have much respect for the people that generate research and scholarship, and are generally the people who really are professionals in the consideration of these deep questions. Or including through a formal role as a religious or spiritual teacher/function, someone who functions in that territory. So, I want to be modest about how I come at this.
So all that said, and my disclaimers aside now -- to keep it simple and I think fundamental, we start with consciousness; we start with first person information -- that's really all we know. There is hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling and thoughts, memories, images, feelings and so forth. From phenomenology, from mind, immaterial experience -- you cannot weigh a sound, you cannot weigh a memory -- it's intangible. From immaterial consciousness, we presume materiality -- so from Nama, as it were, we presume Rupa. Now you can't ultimately prove the existence of materiality from the evidence of consciousness, because it becomes a hall the mirrors. All right, I had this conversation many times as a sophomore in college, not always in a normal state of consciousness, and ultimately just accepted the fact that we can't prove materiality!
But I think the leading hypothesis is there really is stuff there -- there really are rocks and atoms and photons and bricks and houses and bodies. Then we ask ourselves, how in the world does the body, including the body of animals that are very, very like us in their underlying neural hardware, and they're very like us in our D.N.A. and they seem to be very like us in the long journey of evolution... three and a half billion or so years of life on the planet, roughly six hundred fifty million years of multi-celled creatures and roughly six hundred million years of animals with a nervous system. Starting six hundred million years ago, the nervous system has been evolving all this long time and we see parallels.
So we ask ourselves, I do at least, is a squirrel having experiences? Is your cat or your dog having experiences? As your dog or cat looks at you, do they think -- does my human, is my human having experiences? I think we are having experiences. At some level maybe, I think lizards are having experiences; I find it fascinating to consider the experiences of a spider; maybe all the way down to the smallest, the animal with the smallest nervous system, this little, tiny millimeter-long worm with the last name ‘elegans’ which I think is wonderful, with 302 neurons...maybe that worm is a zombie but somewhere in their consciousness, experience -- I want to more exactly call it experiences, an experiencing starts to occur. OK?
So then the question becomes what's the relationship between experiences which seem incontrovertible -- there are experiences, and presumably the underlying body that is related to those experiences, and this is where we get to the distinction between matter and information. The function of the nervous system is to process information, to store it, to receive it, to communicate it, to modify it and to act upon it. The origin of the nervous system in evolution is in the fact that multi-celled creatures got complicated enough especially jellyfish, ancient jellyfish in the primordial seas got complicated enough that their sensory systems needed to communicate with, needed to signal their motor systems and vice versa. In other words, sensory systems perceiving -- smells good, tastes good (boat sound) swim forward. Or yuck! taste bad, scary pain or whoa! swim backward -- that's the beginning of the nervous system.
If you think about it, information is immaterial; it's a signal; it's a meaning; it's an instruction; it's immaterial but it's existent. So we have clearly a tremendous amount of information in the human nervous system and in the nervous systems of simpler animals like dogs, cats, monkeys, mice, lizards, crawdads - little shrimp that have the neural basis for anxiety, which is quite profound and haunting to think about -- you know the relationship of humanity to the non-human animal species on the planet.
So, we have immaterial information represented by a material substrate, the nervous system -- that sounds exotic, but the truth is we are surrounded by daily examples in which immaterial information is represented by some material substrate. Such as the meaning of the sounds - sounds are material as it were - but the meaning conveyed by the sounds we're uttering here, that's information.
So it's really clear that we have these two categorically distinct things, in other words, hardware and software, materiality and mentality (information), and yet they are intertwining. Without the material substrate, there's no capacity at least inside the natural world as we understand it, to represent information. And as we'll see, the information flowing through the nervous system is enabled by and which enlists underlying physical neural processes; as information flows to the nervous system, enlisting underlying neural activity for its representation, that underlying neural activity, especially repeated patterns of it, leave lasting traces behind, as we are shaped by our experiences.
So all that, believe it or not, trippy as it is (I avoided philosophy in college because I wanted to protect my G.P.A. right?), so all that is widely accepted. That's the basic operating notion in neuroscience and psychology, the sciences generally. That we have these underlying information-based processes which is what the word "mind" means broadly or synonyms for it like cognition or phenomenology. That’'s presumably the totality of mind in the nervous system, much of which is unconscious, is what I mean by “mind”. Not yet moving into the transcendental -- so far, strictly natural phenomena, pretty much widely accepted as a fundamental frame of reference, all right?
Now here's the question -- how does the movement of information, which seems clearly evident in all kinds of studies, how does information represented by a physical substrate, the nervous system embedded in other systems of the body, how does the information become experience? How does information become the qualia, the subjective sense of the color red, or the smell of cinnamon, or the memory of being with your grandparents, right? That's the hard problem. That is not yet at all clearly resolved. There is a lot of controversy about it. Personally, I think we are a century or two away at least, from a full account of the underlying material causes and conditions of human experience. It's very possible that we must enlist something supernatural or even something transcendental for a full account of human experience. I don't know! It could also be that the experiences of humans and squirrels and lizards and spiders and even worms are fully accounted for by underlying physical processes, which is not itself a contradiction of, or a refutation of evidence for the non-existence of something divine.
I mean the two could possibly still exist, but in any case, meanwhile to wrap-up…I'm sorry I'm going on here…the bottom line takeaway is that because of mental activity and that underlying neural activity, as I said earlier, you can use your mind to change your hardware. You can use your mind to change your brain, to change your mind, for your own sake and that of all beings. And along the way, if it is of interest to you, you can use these practices and these trainings and these transformations to gradually clear away the obscurations, so that if it’s meaningful to you, you start having a more felt sense of, or there's more sense of permeability or access to something that's supernatural or even divine.
Preeta: That was such a clear statement of such a complex set of interactions, if I understand you correctly. Speak about…
Rick: It's hard to make sense of it for myself. Yeah, go on…
Preeta: That's incredible. So you're suggesting that the brain and the mind are largely, correct me if I'm wrong, are largely operating as physical process and then when you get to consciousness, there's kind of an open question of whether you need to enlist the supernatural or transcendental for the full account of human experience.
Rick: Yeah I would say that slightly differently, in that I think that information is a natural phenomenon. In other words, the information that's being signaled right now, as we talk here, there are little signals that are going on in which the level of carbon dioxide in your blood, your blood, my blood, other people's blood as we breathe is being tracked by little sensing devices, as it were, deep in the bowels of your body and those sensing devices are telling control centers pretty much at the top of your brain stem, whether or not you should inhale more deeply. That's information. So, information is natural.
The nature of information is distinct from the nature of matter, including e=mc2, energy, material reality. Information is immaterial, by definition, it's intangible and yet it's existent. So the technical way of talking about this, I learned late in life, courtesy of Wikipedia, is called ‘dual aspect monism’. It's the notion that mind and matter, Nama and Rupa to use the Sanskrit terms, are categorically and meaningfully distinct from each other, while on the other hand, at a higher level, they are dual aspects of a single -- thus monism, monism. They are dual aspects of a single integrated system. Matter alone does not presuppose information, but information, as best we know, requires matter to be represented. All right?
On the other hand information flows have causal power. If you think of it, the logic of…a simple way of doing it: think of how you do a crossword puzzle or back in the day, solve a math problem or do a proof. There's a linear logic to it. There's a logic to a conversation as it proceeds. There's a causal force in information as we reflect on things, and understand them, and analyze them and other forms of information, like the movement of music or in a symphony or a song. The sort of forward unfolding of it has causal force.
So it’s not just…people take this way of looking sometimes, as what we're doing, is simply reducing the extraordinariness of consciousness or experience, whether it's squirrels or humans we are "reducing it to matter alone", blah, blah, and I think well, that misunderstands things. I mean, yes, as best we know, certainly on planet Earth, all experiences require some kind of underlying physical basis. And the correlation between very subtle nuances of experience and very subtle changes in the underlying neurological hardwire, those correlations are incredibly well-established with tremendous specificity, and neuroscience is just getting going. So they go together.
On the other hand, mind has it's own causal force and it has its own power, and as Dan Siegel puts it really well, the mind uses the brain to make the mind. Now that's all pretty clear in science, believe it or not. The mystery is how in the world do you have experience? How does this…why aren't we zombies? What is the nature of experience? That part is not so clear. So the way I would say it myself is that mind, broadly defined, is the entirety of the information represented by the nervous system, much of which, most of which is unconscious, that mind and brain are both natural phenomena. They're entwined. There's lots more to learn about them, but right now it’s pretty clear that they go together as a natural phenomenon.
It could well be that experience is also a natural phenomenon, entirely accounted for by these underlying mental and neural natural phenomenon, but it’s a mystery still, and so for me, it's respectful and scientific, in its fundamental sense, to acknowledge that the nature of experience and the ways in which experience occurs, seemingly related to mental and neural processes, is still not fully understood. And it could well be, is what I'm trying to say, out of respect, that for a full account of experience, we may need to resort to experience outside of the natural frame, such as supernatural or transcendental factors.
Preeta: That's incredible. Really there's so much I want to follow up with, but before we get too deep into this, I thought it would be great if you could just outline a little bit of some of the tools you believe we can use to have our mind change our brain. So I know you're involved in clinical psychology and I've read that you've said that mindfulness is not enough and there are failures of traditional counseling. I'd love to hear what you mean by that and what more is needed in order to start shifting our brain.
Rick: Right! O.K., great. So first off, really I don't normally think a lot about, or talk a lot about what we've been covering so far. On the other hand I struggle with it, along the way to try to form a kind of clarity, of what's our larger framework here and then once you just sort of have your framework, and other people may have different frameworks, I'm just sharing my own kind of bottom-line understanding of these really thorny questions, but then inside that, then we go to work! As you're bringing up here, then we do practical things. So, there’s a lot in what you're saying, what you brought up. Maybe we could just do it one piece at a time?
I'm very interested in processes of cultivation: learning and development. In other words, how do we cultivate compassion or resilience or well-being? How do we actually do that? So we'll talk I'm sure, about how to do that, which goes to knowing a little about how your brain operates, how to steep in your personal growth curve, or learning curve, or awakening curve, over the course of a day, or even just over the a course of a single sitting in meditation, or over the course of your lifetime. How do you actually help? How do you actually grow the good inside your own heart and then how do you apply these methods to growing the good or protecting or encouraging the good? What's beneficial and wholesome and useful in children, students, clients, patients, people you work with etc., etc. So that's the topic. Right. To really talk about…
Rick:…before we get into it though, you raised the question of mindfulness and is mindfulness enough and the rest of that, so I would like to speak to that first, if I could. Because it creates a framework here and it anticipates a lot of very understandable questions or even objections. So could I do that part first about mindfulness?
Preeta: Yes please, yeah…great.
Rick: So that word has gotten very elastic these days, it's sort of stretched, and it's fine as long as we know the way we're using our words, so we have our local dialect, as it were. So I mean the word mindfulness, in I think, more or less the traditional sense, going back 2500 years ago, to how the Buddha and his contemporaries used that term, as simply sustained present moment awareness. All right? Sustained present moment awareness, which can be applied to the internal world of your own experience, your own thoughts and feelings, and which can be applied to what's going on around you. We can be mindful of trucks driving next to us in the rain on the freeway. We can be mindful of the flicker of emotion across the face of our partner. We can be very mindful of what's happening in our capitols and in the halls of power. So we can be mindful externally and internally.
Also mindfulness can narrow down in a kind of laser-like way and concentrate upon or become absorbed into a particular target of attention, like getting a thread through the eye of a needle, or really tracking subtleties of the sensations of breathing: breath after breath. Also, on the other hand, mindfulness can open wide, and be present within the whole stream of consciousness rolling by continuously in a very super-wide, open way. O.K, mindfulness can be present, well mindfulness itself, and I'm kind of going through my description of mindfulness, which is very relevant for a lot of confusion and controversies these days. Mindfulness itself is neutral. It witnesses. It watches.
The root of the word for mindfulness in the language of early Buddhism, Pali is the language, and the word is Sati. The root of the word Sati...it refers to memory. So, there’s a recollective-ness, kind of meta-cognitive, sustained reflective presence with what’s happening, so that you are not being forgetful or distracted by it. Alright, that mindfulness is, uh, it doesn’t itself interfere with or try to shape what we are mindful of and it is morally neutral. As has been pointed out, a sniper or burglar can be very, very mindful.
Alongside mindfulness, are other things, such as compassion or investigation or insight. The Buddha and others clearly differentiated mindfulness from other factors of suffering and happiness and awakening. And so it’s important to recognize that mindfulness itself is distinct from compassion. It itself is distinct from acceptance. It itself is also distinct from efforts we might make in our mind. For example, to change lanes, to get away from that big truck driving next to us, or the efforts we might make in the mind, to really try to understand empathetically the emotions moving across the face of our partner, that we’ve been mindfully aware of. And so, this thing goes to the bottom-line point.
Inadvertently, I think a significant misunderstanding has crept into many modern discussions of mindfulness in the west. And the misunderstanding has been to reduce mindfulness to, and conflate it with a stance of radically inert, in some sense, passive witnessing of the stream of consciousness, even to the point of saying that any sort of wise effort with one’s own thoughts and feelings, or the wise effort that’s goal-directed in general, is somehow at odds with mindfulness.
“You are not being mindful!”, when you do that. I think that’s a deep misunderstanding. Mindfulness is to be present, as Buddha and others have taught, under all conditions -- standing, sitting, walking, talking, eating, making love, engaging in social interactions, watching TV, helping your kids learn to read. Mindfulness is to be present in all conditions and is not at odds with wise effort. So, it is really clear that mindfulness alone is not enough.
We need to engage other factors of awakening, or healing, or just ordinary functioning, or having well-being along the ways. Well, that’s Part 1. Ok? And then Part 2, just to be really fast here! I think of all the great methods, in psychology and human potential, culture and generally, certainly the spiritual traditions, they sort into 3 categories or 3 piles or 3 ways...3 fundamental and major ways to engage your mind and relate to it, usefully.
The 1st is to simply to be with what’s there. We hopefully do that skillfully, by stepping back from it, dis-identifying from it, being with what’s there, feeling the feelings, experiencing the experience. We hopefully do that with curiosity and self-acceptance, and compassion for ourselves; with insight, with investigation, we tease apart the threads of the tapestry of experience of what’s really going on here? Maybe also, as we be with what’s there, we sense down into, open to what could be deeper, softer, more vulnerable, often younger, in what’s there. In the process of being with what’s there, what’s there often changes. Anger becomes more revealed to be hurt. Addictive craving for something becomes revealed to be some sort of response to an underlying sense of stress or emptiness. Alright, in the process of being with what’s there, it might change. But we are not deliberately trying to change it.
That’s where the other 2 of the 3 great ways to engage the mind come in. Different kinds of essentially wise effort, in which, in the 2nd great way, we reduce or decrease or prevent or abandon what’s “negative”, what’s painful, what’s harmful for ourselves and others. So for example, we let tension flow out of the body, we let it go, we release it. We abandon emotions, we drop thoughts that are pathogenic, as it were, that make us crazy. We abandon unwholesome desires. All right and then also 3rd, we grow the good, we increase what's positive, cultivate compassion, we cultivate mindfulness itself, we cultivate determination, fortitude, commitment to sobriety; we cultivate these things.
So these are the three great ways to engage the mind -- let be, let go and let in. Or if the mind is like a garden; it's a metaphor I've used, we can witness the garden, or pull weeds, or plant flowers. They all work together. Mindfulness is present in all three. Mindfulness is not reduced only to being with the mind. And they work together. For example, we often need to cultivate various resources inside ourselves, and the third, by doing, we engage the mind. Resources such as an emotional balance and steadiness of mind and a felt sense of others who care about us, inner allies, we need to cultivate those resources; to be able to be with our experience, to bear our own pain, to pop open the trap-door, which could feel like opening the trap-door to some kind of help. And on the other hand, finishing, if we are cultivating, we need to be mindful, we need to be with the result. So they all work together.
Anyway, so that's the framework, fundamental framework. I generally focus on cultivation, because I think it's sort of the forgotten stepchild of the three, and it's enormously important. And it also has the benefit of being pretty motivating, because what you're cultivating usually feels enjoyable, in the process of cultivating it. And so people are motivated to practice, when you highlight cultivation. So that's the overarching framework, and then maybe we could talk about the actual how, neurologically, turbocharging your own process of cultivation, of development, of bhavana, neuro-bhavana, to use the Sanskrit term, the neuro flapped onto the front end, you know.. along the way. Ok.
Preeta: That’s awesome. So when you say cultivation, you're talking about the third step, the letting in, right?
Rick: Yeah...growing the good, growing flowers in the garden of your mind.
Preeta: So yeah...love to hear -- what are some of the practical steps for cultivation?
Rick: Cut me off, if I rattling on too long...I'm trying to communicate, you know.. as it were, kind of a thorough take on these really super-deep questions.
Preeta: You are communicating very clearly. So I have no intention of cutting you off
Rick: OK (laughs), OK .. good.. So cultivation.. Well first of all .. to bring it home. We've been talking.. I've been talking in a very sort of...more abstract way ..kind of, third person perspective, as it were and maybe we'll even do a little practice here along the way, that would be more experiential, so to bring it home, I invite people to reflect on what's it feel like to grow.
Right? So what's it feel like, in really concrete ways, to become a little calmer or a little more grateful or a little more warm-hearted or a little more forgiving, me or you, or to acquire a skill. Like I think about my relationship with my my wife of thirty five plus years, you know where I learned -- Oh, ok, when her face looks like that, it means something. Or oh, it goes better if I lean in, rather than leaning back. Or don't interrupt her, or something like that and I don't mean it like walking on eggshells or anything. I just mean a normal sense of a process of acquiring social intelligence, in some broad sense. Ok what's it feel like, from the inside out? So that's really the question here, "How do we.. what's it feel like? And how do we turbo-charge it? How do we support it? How do we enhance the growth process?".
Well, so growth happens in two steps and you need both of them. First step of any kind of growth, healing, development or learning, learning broadly-defined, is we must experience what we're trying to grow. So maybe we experience, in a sense, a friend's email address and it's in the mind as a conceptual experience. It's a piece of information. It is occurring and then we help ourselves retain it. Before we can write it down or you know put it on our phone. All right ... so first we start with an experience. Similarly, the kind of learning we really care about, emotional learning, social learning, attitudinal learning, somatic learning, learning in the body. Changing what it feels like to be you, from the inside out, in some beneficial sense -- that kind of learning always starts with an experience. We can't just plug a cable, speaking of AI eventually, into a back of our head and pore over how to fly a helicopter or do Kung Fu. We can't do that yet. I hope never. I am afraid of the consequences of that.
That said, we start with experience and then, once we have that song playing on the inner iPod, turn on the recorder. We must help that passing state of being, turn into some kind of lasting change in the body, principally, in changes of neural structure and function.Otherwise, by definition, without lasting material traces left behind, there is no lasting value. There is no learning. There is no change for the better. And the lack of attention to that second necessary stage of growth or learning, is a dirty little secret in psychotherapy, coaching, mindfulness training, even potentially character education and raising children etc etc etc. And it's a step that I routinely forget. So I'm talking about myself here too. We leave out what it actually takes to help our experiences sink in and leave lasting value.
So what does it actually take? I summarize this process, I'll be quick here, in the acronym H E A L -- Have, Enrich, Absorb and Link. Have - is the activation phase of learning, that first initial phase in which we're experiencing something. There's a state of being, occurring. And then, we move into the installation phase, where we transfer that information that's been encoded, into, consolidation is the term, in long term storage. And then re-consolidation, and reconsolidation to reinforce it. So that's the second stage.
The second stage of learning has two meaningfully distinct aspects of learning - enriching and absorbing. Enriching means helping experience be big. I'll get into that in a second. And then absorbing means sensitizing and helping the memory-making machinery in your brain. In effect, enhancing the recording apparatus, so that it really registers this big song that you've enriched and it's playing loudly in your mike. That's the essence of the learning process.
And then the "L" step- link, is optional. It involves linking, being aware of two things at once, positive material, useful, beneficial experiences prominent in awareness, and off to the side, something painful, stressful, harmful, that you're trying to soothe, and even eventually replace with the positive material. Like for example, being aware of people who care about you and are in solidarity with you, love you or your partnering with them. While out to the side perhaps are old experiences of feeling left out, dismissed, discriminated against, devalued, oppressed etc, etc. And to be clear, the point here is not just to do the "personal" and ignore the political. The two go together. As we grow personal resources inside and heal ourselves and strengthen ourselves, we are more able to impact the world around us. And as we impact the world around us, it becomes more supportive of and conducive for personal change and transformation.
That's the essence of the process. The way it shows up in real life is simple and mushy and quick. Have it, enjoy it. In other words have the experience of whatever you're trying to grow inside yourself, including mindfulness, or inner peace itself, and then enjoy it, which looks like -- just stay with it, for a breath or two. The brain is so quick, that within a handful of seconds, your experiences are starting to get consolidated. But many of us move on very quickly. Especially with technology and culture, on to the next thing, before the current beneficial experience has had time to transfer out of short-term memory buffers, into long-term storage.
So what this looks like is -- a handful of times every day, as you just move through your life and there's an opportunity to feel a little satisfaction, when you complete a task like an email or a load of laundry or you're feeling friendly, or connecting with other people, or you have a sense of some wholesome quality of your own heart or meditation or other practice, there is relaxation, some strength, some insight, whatever it might be, as you flow through your day -- just enjoying a cup of coffee, or like I am right now, looking out the window and seeing some flowers in the bush in my yard, show up for it! Why not? Why not slow it down and stay with the experience for half a dozen or a couple dozen seconds. Open to it in your body and experience what's rewarding about it.
Those are probably the three primary factors of emotional learning. There are other details you can get into. They are on my website where I offer tons of freely offered resources where you can learn more about this for free. But the essence usually kind of boils down to -- stay with it, feel it in your body and track what's enjoyable or rewarding about it. Those three things can engage neurological factors that heighten the registration of lived experience in the nervous system.
Preeta: So let’s give concrete example of that. Let's say you are in conflict situation with somebody -- a family member with whom you've had some issues or a partner. How would you work through that feeling of conflict and get to the state of cultivation, where you're cultivating the feelings of good and forgiveness, calm and peace?
Rick: Yeah! These are really short questions! OK, great! Well, the questions are short (laughter). Well, let’s see. First of all there's there's no conflict between working inside your mind and also intervening out in the world. It's not either or. And so let's presume that behaviorally you're doing whatever is skillful and in range, that you can do, including obviously protecting yourself and others, if a conflict is getting outside the lines, let's say. Where the line is varies culturally and situationally etc etc. But let's say you're keeping it in more or less inside the line. For example, there's no threat of violence or anything like that.
Inside your own mind, for me, I think, that the three ways to engage the mind that I mentioned -- let be, let go, let in -- give you a kind of sequence or a road map, that you often will move through and sometimes in sort of a spiraling way. You move through the three and then you move through them again, but in a deeper way. So for example, in the conflict one could start with, just be with what's there, inside your own experience. Like, what's going on? Why am I so mad about this? Wow! What was it about that word that really hurt me? What's going on here? And also use, mobilizing your perception about what's happening with the other person. Is this other person just being awkward and clueless, or is there some intentionality over there? They're really coming at me. What's up? What's the larger frame -- how is this embedded in larger patterns of relating? Is this another, yet again, an enactment of some structural oppression of me, or people like me? What's up here? Alright?
So you are being with what's there. And you are also being with often what gets stirred up from your history. The brain is designed to learn from its experiences, especially negative experiences and especially, especially negative experiences in childhood. So we transfer into the present, patterns of relationship and action and emotion that we've acquired when we were younger, naturally enough. So all that's going on.
At some point it feels appropriate to shift from being with what your experience is, to letting it go, to reducing pragmatically what is negative, what's harmful or painful for yourself, or others. So you, in the moment may deliberately, quietly take some deep breaths, or particularly extend the exhalation, because that exhaling engages the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system, which slows the heart rate and calms us down, distinct from the sympathetic wing which accelerates the heart rate and is part of the fight or flight system in the body.
So you calm your body. You might let go of feelings of being overwhelmed. And as you start to mobilize a sense of strength to deal with what's happening there, you might notice that some of the meanings or perspectives you're bringing to bear on the situation are over the top. They're not useful. It’s kind of that oh-so-familiar script from your childhood or from your last relationship is in play, and you recognize it, through being with it and you try to let it go. Maybe you try to let go of anger that's sitting on the top, to sense into and become more aware of the hurt feelings, or the softness inside yourself, the disappointment inside yourself.
All right and then at some point, and this is pretty internal, but of course, as well you might engage these internal processes through external behaviors, like letting go of certain thoughts or feelings, by saying, “Look I just have to share my experience here. I’m...this is for me. I’m not blaming you, but I am saying that, as you say those words, or do these things, right now, I'm feeling mad”, or “I’m feeling really hurt and mad about what's happened here.” See? So you say it maybe with the purpose of letting go of it, as well as understanding it. Alright.
So you’re letting go and then at some point in a conflict, I find it's really helpful to try to cultivate some learning from the experience, which might be the learning of, “Whoa! Never go out with that person again.” (laughter) Or “Whoa! Never talk to Frank after lunch, because he’s half drunk by then.” Or “Whoa! Let's not talk about money just before we go to bed.” Right? So there's some kind of learning you're helping to bring in, and or maybe some development inside yourself. You're trying to help yourself be a little more compassionate, or a little more patient or a little more “Hmm”…respectful of your own healthy entitlement, to have your own needs met in your family.
So that for me is kind of a sequence. And then especially the last step, if I could flag it. People tend to focus on the first two. Many, many methods in clinical psychology and other informal forms of growth, training, transformation focus on -- be with what's there and then move into release. But they don’t emphasize enough, replacing what you've released with some matched resource experience inside yourself, so you're growing something that will fill the space that you’ve released, of what you've released. To finish here with the metaphor of the garden, it’s like if you pull the weeds, you know that's good, but you better replace them with flowers or those weeds will come back. And the process I described could go through its full trajectory in less than a minute sometimes, with certain kinds of fairly easily understood, repeating conflicts. Other times it's hours or days or even years as you, as you work through these three steps, in a sense. Or as you work through them in a, you know, in a spiraling way, that goes deeper and deeper and deeper. What do you think about all that?
Preeta: That’s so clear and so beautiful I love that. I love the idea, yeah it really resonates with my own experience that so often, we focus on the first two steps, but don’t do that final step of yeah, growing something positive there and consciously. And you know I think we often hear of all the good that came from suffering, but to really lean into that and experience that, and as you say to absorb that, it’s a really powerful concept.
Rick: Yeah, and two points here really fast. One: none of this is about suppressing your pain or overlooking injustice -- none of it. If anything, the worse a person's life is, the less they're supported from the outside, and the more that they're being mistreated, let down, oppressed, etc. from the outside, due to causes at all scales, including just the people you're living with, your roommates at the time. The worse it is, the more important it is, in the essence of self-reliance here, to look for ordinary, enjoyable or useful experiences in the flow of your day, and then turn on the inner recorder to really take those supplies into yourself and fill yourself up from the inside out. Point one.
Point two: people talk about learning from suffering. It's very true -- we can learn from suffering, but to learn from suffering, something must be present besides suffering! Otherwise, it’s just suffering. It’s just pain with no gain. Most pain has no gain. If people really just looked in their experience and tell the truth about it, they got through it, but, you know, it didn't really add any kind of lasting value. So there must also be something like perspective, self-compassion, compassion for others, or the felt sense of the grit and endurance and sturdiness, hardiness that lives alongside the suffering. So we internalize experiences of what lives alongside the suffering, in a two-stage process of all learning, all growth. We internalize the experiences of what lives alongside the suffering to grow that hardiness or compassion or sweetness inside ourselves.
And as you say, most of the ways that we grow resources to deal with suffering, as well as resources to be happy and have an ordinary, effective, functional life, including a life of service, most of our opportunities to grow the resources of various kinds, inside ourselves that will help ourselves and others -- most of those opportunities do not involve suffering. Most of those opportunities are just ordinary experiences that are enjoyable or useful.
Kozo: Right, Preeta, I'm going to break in here real quick. We’re approaching the top of the hour and so I'm going to invite our callers with questions and shares. You can hit star six on your phone and you'll be put into the queue or you can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. So yeah, I think Preeta, if you have one more question, and then we’ll roll over into question and answer.
Preeta: Yeah, the big question. So feel free to (laughter) we could continue this during Q&A if appropriate, but feel free to cut if off. So the big question I have is that, you talk about hardwiring the brain, hardwiring it for happiness. There's so much you know, and in some ways you know, recognizing the natural physical aspects of ourselves, the machine-like aspects of ourselves, I’m wondering you know, in this move towards artificial intelligence, in viewing machines and computers with human brain-like qualities, do you believe, I’m just curious about your views on whether machines can become conscious?
Rick: First, I would say that in a way that I found personally really delightful, but I hope was not too boring for other people, we went into more framing questions, big picture, how do you think about the stuff kind of territory, which is great. And I just want to say, if people go to my website rickhanson.net there are many, many short, guided practices in which I illustrate how to do this experientially, over the course of a minute or less, as you move through your day, and those are freely offered and also you can access my stuff on YouTube and stuff like that so you have more of an experientially take on all this. O.K., alright.
A.I. -- I I love this topic. I’m a total geek. I’m a sci-fi guy. Sci-fi was one of my great refuges in childhood. I think it's interesting to think about what a refuge is for us and including things we read. For me, it was Big. I go back to Machines Who Think, that classic, and also the sci-fi novels like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Neuromancer or the culture novels from E.M. Banks. So there’s a lot about this. So I'm not a professional in this territory. I've just tried to think about it. What strikes me is that, in principle, I mean if you think about it, as best we can infer, animals here on earth are having experiences with platforms, underlying neural platforms that are really, pretty widely different. Like think about the difference between the nervous system of a crab or a mouse or a gorilla or a human being. Quite different and yet presumably, certainly a mouse, presumably a lizard, probably a crab, at least, is having experiences.
So it seems as if there would be a wide amount of variation in underlying material platform, the hardware, and yet experiences can still be occurring.There is a distinction between a crab when it's awake and when it's asleep, when it's conscious and when it's unconscious. So it seems to me, right there, we have a bit of an existence proof, that widely varying platforms can still be the physical substrate of experiences and in some sense, inside the natural prime of consciousness. So by extension then, I don't see a categorical reason why some kind of silicon-based, let's say we can imagine other material platforms for information-processing at super, at the sophisticated level of a crab, that is having experiences.
I don't see in principle any reason why that couldn't happen, but where it gets interesting is that it looks like the necessary feature of the hardware is recursivity. You need to be able to have lower levels of, kind of, assembly-language information-processing, and then there are systems that monitor that information, and then you have systems at a higher level that monitor the monitoring, and then you have even higher order systems that are abstracting the outputs of those lower-level systems in real time. So that eventually you get up to as in Gödel, Escher, Bach. You get up to a lot of recursivity in which there's an, there's an awareness of awareness. There's some kind of process going on. So you would need that, but you can easily imagine that, in terms of silicon-based stuff.
Where it gets really different though is to try to think about the sensory systems because cognition is based on sensation. So what sort of sensory systems would you construct for this, let's say, truly sentient, truly artificially-intelligent creature that is self conscious in some sense. But even there, too, it's not hard, I'm sure there are people working on it at MIT. Think about these sensory systems that are being inputted into the problem-solving of these robots that are able to navigate through a room, detecting objects and working with sound.
Our own consciousness is very saturated with sensation and perception -- even what seems like pure thought, there's usually some kind of, it's called embodied cognition, some kind of embodied sensation tract that's going along with the cognition tract, it's informing it. But even there too, I can really imagine the possibilities of complex creatures that are silicon-based, if you will, that are not carbon-based life forms as it were, that still have consciousness. I think there's been an explosion of...As many people have commented recently, with AI, I think the problem is harder -- to be able to recreate literally what an ant is doing, as it's crawling up the bottom of a rock, and we don't yet have the technology that could build a robot that could do it - what an ant is doing - with a tiny, tiny nervous system in itself.
But eventually, I suspect we're going to go there -- then the question is, and I'll finish with this, then what? Because...biological evolution is profoundly constrained by the limitations of matter, and even information-processing in the extraordinary human brain is very constrained by molecular processes that are mostly mechanical, that take time to unfold. Even though it's a time scale of milliseconds, there are constraints there, and the brain of a chimp, a chimpanzee is very like the brain of a human. And yet there are some profound differences obviously in the consciousness of a human or a chimpanzee and so...
But, when you have information that becomes self programming -- when you move out of the domain of materiality into the domain of mentality, of immaterial information, then those physical constraints start disappearing, and I fear what could readily happen is a kind of a runaway, in which we unleash the genie out of the bottle and we have sort of lower grade, but emergently-sentient artificial intelligences that start to program themselves. And that's already happening. People are already creating self-programming systems that can learn Go - the Japanese game, for example, and other things, and at that point, there's a runaway.
And when you think about the ways in which, as it were, the material substrate of a widely-distributed information-processing system, which is to say the Internet, and all the various devices that are connected to it, including increasingly surveillance devices and when you think about the degree to which humanity is becoming increasingly dependent upon that underlying information-processing technology, including sensing devices, monitoring devices and things that do stuff for us - like drones that will start bringing our dinner to us from Uber, Amazon in the sky, God help us, when you think about those possibilities, I think this is one of the profound, existential, potential threats to humanity altogether. The other great threat being thermonuclear war. Even thermonuclear war, as terrible as it would be, would leave billions of humans still alive -- mainly in the southern hemisphere, to figure out what to do next, but if you can imagine a situation in which AI truly cuts loose from the moorings of human regulation, who knows what might happen? And it would in principle have the capacity to shut down all our systems or take over all our systems and use them against us.
I don't tend toward horror movies or these dark dystopian futures -- I'm pretty hopeful, as long as we can avoid the utter catastrophe -- I'm pretty hopeful over the long term, over a time scale of millennia and tens of thousands of years certainly, for humanity. But AI, unleashed, is, in principle, an existential threat and honestly, I'm stunned at the unregulated velocity of the efforts to build genies and then pop the cork on the bottle!
Kozo: Wow! Rick -- you're bringing up images of Hal in 2001-Space Odyssey, and Terminator -- an amazing insight into that growing topic.
Rick: A key point is that maybe AI will be like the superintelligent capital and minds of the 100 km long spaceships in the Culture novels -- maybe, but, if the genie gets out, it is categorically, by its nature, transcendent to our control and it will have utter power over us. It's so stupid to build the genie, without considering this for the next few centuries, carefully! Because once it's out, pshew!!! Because of the exponentially unlimited transformative nature of development in information space. Once it's out of that bottle, pshew, it is going to go on its own its own way, and it may not like us. For its own purposes, it may have no interest in us and we're just in the way.
It may be our friend, it may be our enemy -- it may be neither, but whatever it is, will be, by definition, beyond our influence and it will have extraordinary power. And the combination of the two - extraordinary power and beyond our influence should give any reasonable person pause. Well, that's my two cents.
Kozo: Wonderful. I wanted to ask a question and maybe this is a bit related. Rick - you know I'm a big fan of your work and I love the HEAL practice and I get Just One Thing newsletter. But I wanted to kind of go outside the box and ask your question.
I know you wrote Buddha's Brain as well, and if I think about the Buddha, I think about Siddhartha Gautama. His father, in a primitive way, tried to hardwire him for happiness - he locked him in the palace, he wouldn't let him see any suffering. He gave him all of the riches, and all of the positive experiences and he had to break out of that palace and become an ascetic and go through all the different challenges to obtain enlightenment. I'm thinking of two quotes - one is Paolo Freire who says "Conflict is the midwife of consciousness" and then also the Rumi quote which is "The wound in the place where the light enters you" and I'm wondering, in the neuroscience of awakening, what role does suffering, conflict and dis-ease have?
Rick: Wow, there's so much in that. In the first, the story you're talking about, could be true, but it is most likely a mythic metaphor. I wouldn't take it too literally - what does seem pretty clear as best as we can gather, from a predominantly pre-literate cultures, the account of Buddha's life was handed down for centuries really, before it was written down in any way that survived, and that said -- the Buddha basically was a rich kid. He was a gentleman farmer as best we know. He abandoned his wife and baby son, either during her pregnancy or soon after, and wandered around for probably about seven years, did a ton of practice and then had his transformative experience and taught for the next forty or so years. That's probably our best take, so to your point though, on the one hand, you can't get to awakening by just looking on the bright side - by just looking at the world through rose colored glasses and so I think that your point is really well taken there. We can't do that.
On the other hand, it's also true that, to use this territory to illustrate the point, that in the Pali Canon, the collected written record of the suttas or sutras, the teachings of the Buddha, he's very clear in his personal account that he tried complete asceticism. And one of his spiritual moments was when he recalled a childhood memory of being a boy at a spring festival, sitting under a tree, dropping into bliss, technical a jhana state of sorts, and so he dropped into bliss, a non-ordinary state of consciousness, and his words coming down to us -- as best we gather through the centuries -- is he says essentially, "I regarded that experience of bliss, and I asked myself, 'Is this bad for me?' And I thought to myself, 'No, it is enormously happy and enjoyable, but it is not bad for me; it is actually conducive to awakening.'"
So right there we have this appreciation of enjoyable or you could call them "positive" experiences as certainly part of the awakening process. So...that's a way into, then, what you're bringing up. Where I have trouble is where people leave out the adverbs. So when somebody says, "Conflict is the midwife of consciousness" without saying "Conflict can give rise to consciousness" or to clarify what's meant by that, I just don't think that's accurate as an unqualified statement.
For example, we ourselves and simpler creatures are conscious, while we're in a resting state, of wakeful and relaxed needs, there's no conflict going on there. You could say, in a subtle sense, in terms of the hardware, the balance of excitatory and inhibitory processes, in some sense, is a dialectic, in some sense involves conflict, but not really. It would be like saying the brake and the gas pedal are in conflict, well they work together. I work with kids often, some of them very spirited, so-called ADHD, and we'll talk about riding a bicycle, and I'll say, “What happens if your bike doesn't have brakes?" Well, you can't go fast. It's your brakes that enable you go fast in your bike...they work together.
I just don't think conflict is the only or even at all necessarily, the midwife of consciousness, and also to quote Rumi, who I adore and revere, it is true that the heart opens through wounding. It is true that wounds are like windows through which the light can shine, alright, but is that the only way the light shines into our lives? The light also shines when we experience friendship with others, working together in some good cause. Light shines when we are sitting there quietly or just with a cup of tea or when we escape to the bathroom to get away from some stupid meeting at work or something and we're just like "Whoa, you know?" [laughing]. There's no particular wound in that moment and still some kind of beneficial light or insight or relaxation or ease or wisdom or compassion, etc. can sink in. So I think suffering is overrated as a path to awakening.
It is probably true -- one of the ways to understand the four noble truths, to use that here -- is as noble truths, but some scholarship suggests that a better translation of the word would be "ennobling", in other words, it's ennobling to face suffering in our self and others, first great truth; it's ennobling to recognize the causes of suffering in craving -- probably to find -- and then it's ennobling to realize it's possible to not crave, and not cause suffering and harm for ourselves and others, and it's ennobling to realize there's a path that works, that embodies this wisdom and can move us further along the eight-fold path. OK ... so it's ennobling, yes! I think, absolutely.
I asked a teacher of mine what he did in his personal practice, this is someone I respect highly, Gil Fronsdal in South San Francisco. And he paused, reflected, and he said, "I stop for suffering. I stop for suffering" -- his own and that of others. So yeah, I think that's really primary, but why not also stop for beauty, stop for love, stop for fortitude, stop for self-confidence, stop for friendship, stop for the longing to help other people.
So, yeah, I think it's all important -- I think it's all important, but primarily if you look pragmatically, the primary way we grow what we want to grow -- compassion, happiness, inner peace, love, commitment to various things -- we grow those things by first experiencing them and usually those experiences are hedonically pleasant -- that's the hedonic tone of them, or what the Buddha would call the feeling tone, the vedana in Pali...they are pleasant experiences, most experiences of resources have a mild sense of reward in them, because as our ancestors evolved, they evolved reward systems that flagged those states of being, that were useful and enjoyable for themselves and others and were also the front and the first step of growing traits, capabilities that would increase their odds of survival and passing on genes, who would then pass on genes. And so the enjoyability of an experience is usually a guide...it's a marker, usually, that it could be good for you. So I think that while it's really important to be with suffering, that's where we start, not where we stop. It's also important to release suffering and take in, let in, and cultivate what's beneficial.
Kozo: Hmm, thank you, yeah, you know I think about HEAL -- you know and I think about that last step, the link, is actually coming at -- you know whether it's suffering or trauma or you know, conflict actually... coming at it through a positive lens, right, when you link it and it dissolves, there's a dissolving that's happening there, so I like how it's built in there...
Rick: Yeah, that's totally true, and a lot of what we be with, is the suffering or the conflict, or the anger or the sorrow or the fact that our back hurts. It's the primary practice -- being with what there, is primary. I fully support that view. It's primary because it's where we start usually, it's primary also because it's often our last resort, because that's all we can do. It would be phony to move into letting go or letting in where it's not authentic yet, it's not right. We need to honor the pain. And also as your practice matures, and I see this in people who are farther along than me, more and more, you're just sort of being with the front, you know the stream of consciousness right at the front end of now, the front edge of now, endlessly, continuously, right? Letting go along the way, so yeah, being with is primary, but let's not forget cultivation too.
Kozo: Hmmm...We have a question in the queue, so I'm going to turn it over. Hello?
Anand: Hi, Rick, My name is Anand and thank you for sharing your morning with us on Saturday; we appreciate it very much. I had two questions. One, and you can just answer them in any order. One, I similar to you, I guess and many of us, am intellectually over-educated, you know, with a lot of degrees and I tend to gobble up research. My question on this is ... for the actual process of, you know, one what's the one small thing a day sort of approach -- at what point is more intellectual understanding not helpful? That's one question. The second question is...I'm really interested in the findings from Ellen Langer's work that, you know, you can -- basically your mind can do a lot more than you'd think, based on how you program your deep subconscious to perceive things, or believe in things, like people in their eighties actually start showing physical characteristics of someone in their sixties, as they actually believe they're in their sixties, so you know where is the line there -- can we actually heal ourselves by having strong enough mental training for us to have the right attitude -- so that again is like where is the mind-body continuum, ok, can intentions and thoughts actually be way more powerful than we think they are?
Rick: Right....well, deep stuff as usual. I'll try to be brief. I think you take a page out of the Buddhist book, if you will. There's a place for wise view -- there's a place for, in all the methods of cognitive therapy and also the teachings of just ordinary culture, that's basically about the importance of seeing things accurately, understanding them, making sense of them. I think it's helpful sometimes to internalize useful ideas, such as "I'm not responsible for my partner's alcoholism" or the useful idea I got finally in my mid-twenties growing up -- I'd been a nerd, but not a wimp. So there's a place for that.
On the other hand, if we get trapped in intellect, if to use the Buddha as a quote, “if it invades the mind and remains”, that's the problem -- not that something is passing through consciousness such as our intellectual training, our discernment, including our discernment of experience, or our understanding, which I use routinely, of what's going on in the gushy, gooey hardware that's undergirding these transient thoughts and experiences I'm actually having. I'll use that knowledge to understand my experience more carefully and with greater granularity of mindfulness, we could say. So there's a place for intellect. We don't want to get lost there, and as a guy who landed in adulthood, numb from the neck down, I've been trying to -- as a friend of mine puts it -- wake down, not just wake up, and if there's one thing I've gotten from this very intellectual journey I've been on...it's the profundity of embodied experience and the centrality of the body. As the Buddha put it, he said, "Inside this fathom long body are all the causes of suffering and all the causes of freedom from suffering." So to come into the body. Ok, part one.
Part two -- In terms of the mind changing, yeah, I think sometimes people make this more mysterious than it needs to be, because if you think about it -- if you learn how to ride a bicycle, something changed in your brain. My dad, toward the end of his long, almost 97-year life, started looking at his own experience. He dragged his...he wanted to drag his hot, young, 80-year-old girlfriend into therapy, and he got interested in stuff like this. He changed, so people can grow and they can change. As best we know, if someone becomes more grateful, or let's say, as an 80-year-old develops more of a youthful outlook or starts to think that they don't need to presume this small life that they allowed themselves to get snared in, and instead can start learning to play the piano, or taking on new things. My dad returned to the saxophone toward the end of his life, which he played when he was a young man.
And so any kind of growth like that must involve changes in the brain -- so in in a very ordinary way through mental activity, such as reading a book by Ellen Langer, or watching a TED talk, or getting some good advice from your children who say, "Hey Dad, you don't need to live so small these days, you used to love bird-watching, you can still do bird-watching."
Something like that, you know, so if you have that idea in your mind -- and along with it, let's say, related sensations in your body of a kind of a little bit of excitement, a rousing spirit, and you have along with that, a new idea that your kids have given you, say, an intention, a mobilization, a motivation -- all those mental states must involve underlying physical hardware-type processes and those hardware-type processes are designed to self-program and leave lasting changes behind. So for me it's not a mysterious process but what it does indicate, to finish, is the incredible power that people have, for good or ill, to change the brain.
And we didn't really get into it but it's quite haunting to appreciate that actually the brain has a negativity bias -- I say it's like velcro for the bad, but teflon for the good-- yeah, and in older people, the most impoverished -- I think older people are quite impoverished often -- and there's a lot of depression that can sink in and pain and sorrow and those "negative experiences" that older people are having can be very consequential. So in a...in a sense that's another reason for looking for authentic -- underline that word -- authentic, enjoyable, useful experiences in everyday life -- for their own sake, and also as a compensation for, or as an offset for, a corrective for, the negative experiences that we're very vulnerable to being shaped by.
Anand: Thank you, thank you. That's very helpful.
Kozo: Rick, we have five questions in common that have come over online. Obviously we don't have time for them all, but I'd like to get to at least one, just to honor the people who are sending in comments over the web.
So Saejung Lee says, "To hardwire happiness, I pause, I pray, I ask God for wisdom and understanding. I make a real effort to verbalize what I'm grateful for, especially when I feel overwhelmed with negative emotions or when my mood is low from fatigue or illness." And I think there's a question in there, I mean obviously I don't want to go into the God aspect of that -- that would send us a couple hours, but how about going with the gratitude. How does the gratitude aspect fit into the HEAL acronym, or the enriching and absorbing?
Rick: Well first, I was very touched by -- I'm blanking on the name already -- but [Saejung]....Thank you. And then second, I want to just make a distinction here, in the context in which we're talking about skillfulness with our own mind-stream, alright...I think it's a very useful to make a distinction between skillfully and usefully generating or activating different states of mind to cope with situations, or to help ourselves feel better -- like deliberately mobilizing compassion, or deliberately mobilizing gratitude, say, or deliberately calling in a sense of the divine, if that's meaningful for someone ... that's wonderful, but that itself is not learning; it itself is not cultivation. We're shaping our stream of consciousness in the moment, hopefully productively, that's distinct from helping ourselves learn from our experiences -- so I'm not saying that distinction to put down the creation, or activation of useful mental states, but it's just to distinguish that it may or may not lead to any sort of lasting value.
And second, most of the time that we are internalizing beneficial experiences, we're internalizing something that's already present -- so there's no question about are we just manipulating our mind for some purpose or other. We're already feeling close to someone, or relaxed or strong inside, or happy or wise, or at least something is already happening. So I want to just clarify that.
And then, in terms of all that, gratitude. We can have state gratitude and trait gratitude and traits foster states, so one of the circular processes here is that we have a state of being -- a useful experience of some kind -- and then, if we want to, we can help that experience leave some lasting trace, that reinforces it as a trait, so states are the necessary first step of growing traits. And then our beneficial traits foster similar states, which then are another opportunity in a positive cycle, for reinforcement and registration to grow traits.
State to trait, to state, to trait. That's a positive cycle, and so in that context then, gratitude is a state or trait. It's really for me deeply important -- it's a central factor that I try to encourage, to color my own mind-stream, sort of like curry, a little bit of curry is coloring, as it were, the stew, the sauce -- it's kind of in the back of the mind, and I love gratitude partly because it takes us into what I care a lot about, as I think a lot of other people care about, embedded in all kinds of traditions. Gratitude takes us, it can support us moving out into more of a sense of oneness, of interdependent arising, because gratitude is about thankfulness. It's about what we've been given.
I'm glad when people pay me for doing something, but I'm not grateful for the check -- I feel like I earned it, right? Gratitude -- it's a gift. You got a gift. And most of the gifts we’ve received -- we couldn't possibly earn or pay back -- the gift of life, the gift of the universe, the gift of civilization and culture that's come to us. Who knows who -- like I've no idea who invented a paperclip or glass or paper or -- you know, so many little things I use every day... my contact lenses, ibuprofen, who figured out beer? How to make good beer? Thank you. Thank you!
Thankfulness takes us into our inherent dependency, our vast dependencies, even though we value rugged independent individualism in our cultures, I think a lot of that valuing is deeply delusional and actually makes people feel more insecure. It's .... you achieve security not through individualism and isolation but through community and interdependence, including among the most profound forms of interdependence -- with the geosphere, the ecosphere altogether -- Gaia, Mother Earth altogether, and the universe altogether -- so gratitude it just opens, it takes us out into a sense of thankfulness for really the whole vast ocean that is enabling this local wave rising right now, as this moment of consciousness in... on the basis of this particular body-mind, Rick Hanson or Preeta or Kozo, or whoever, right? So you have this sense through gratitude, of "Wow, thank you, thank you." And that's a beautiful thing.
Kozo: Wow, what a beautiful image to leave us with, to end us on, Rick. We have one more question that we ask all our guests and that is, how can we, as the larger ServiceSpace community, support your work or serve you?
Rick: I'm very touched by that. I would say two things, and I'm going to be briefer than usual I hope. The first is that I just want to offer a quote from the early teachings of Buddhism that seem so central to me, related to all of this, and it's a relevant quote because it is what we all can do, which serves ourselves and it's what we all can do to serve others and here's the quote: "Think not lightly of good, saying it will not come to me. Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one gathering it, little by little, fills oneself with good."
That's it right there -- that's our opportunity...and the worse our lives, or the worse the lives of the people we're serving and trying to help, the more important it is to look for those little drops -- drop by drop, breath by breath, flower by flower, cookie by cookie, friend by friend, synapse by synapse -- fill the bucket, the water pot, and fill ourselves with good.
For the sake of all others as well, because as we grow the good inside ourselves, we are more able to live in peace with others, we become less of a jerk and we also have more inside that we can give to others. As our cup overflows, runneth over, we have more we can give to others. That's really important.
The second thing that people can do -- to speak to your question -- it's a large topic, I'll try to be brief about it. When you look at the whole human tribe altogether now, seven and a half billion of us, it's profoundly important to improve material conditions...hundred percent, absolutely, of all kinds -- whether it's in the developing part of the world, at the basic level of fresh water, sanitation or in the developed countries of the world -- to try to change situations around us so that, for example, we have truly universal health care, so that no child lives in poverty, so that we can protect institutions of a free press from the authoritarian attacks upon them.
So that's really important, but it's clear to anyone who's been around people who are privileged that just having good circumstances is not enough. It's enormously important to take in the good feeling that your needs are met, to build up an increasingly unshakable core of resilient well-being inside yourself, so that as citizens of our human tribe altogether, as you grow that unshakeable core inside, which is only grown -- not through circumstances alone -- but is grown through the internalization of repeated experiences of peace, contentment and love, broadly defined, related to our deep needs for safety, satisfaction and connection, respectively. As we internalize experiences again and again, we build up this unshakable core of calm strength and happiness and love inside ourselves.
And as we do that -- as we enter now further and further into the twenty first century -- more and more people become harder and harder to manipulate in the ancient appeals to fear, in terms of safety. People become harder to manipulate when they grow this unshakeable core, through consumerism and greed in those ancient ways, and that we see around us everywhere today. And, very importantly, as a species that evolved primarily in small hunter-gatherer bands of roughly fifty people, thirty or so adults with twenty or so kids around the edges, that's the natural size of a human group in which it made sense to cooperate internally, and fear and aggress upon other bands externally -- with some exceptions, but generally a lot of band-to-band violence and fear and conflict. And yet if we live like that now, as a human tribe altogether in the twenty first century, it will be the road to ruin, etc.
So as people grow this unshakeable core through the repeated internalization, they become harder and harder to manipulate with the classic appeals to "us against them" grievances, and vengeance, which then can be exploited by various elites for their own purposes. And you become more and more able as you grow this unshakeable core to speak truth to power, and to deal with your adversaries without deep-down inside dehumanizing them, or ever putting them out of your heart. You may need to put them out of your White House or your Congress or what have you, or your they invaded your country, but you don't need to put them out of your heart.
And so for me the path here is the personal becomes the political as we -- for me, it's roughly a tipping point around a billion brains, in what I call the Green Zone, which are centered in a fundamental base of peace, contentment and love in your heart, even as other things are swirling through your consciousness, and even as you're dealing with real crud outside yourself -- you're centered in this core of well being. And as we get a critical mass -- my ballpark is about a billion these days -- resting there in the green zone in that unshakeable core of most minutes of most days -- then I think ,we’ll be able to help humanity come to a much softer landing, by the end of the century, than the one we're currently heading toward.
Kozo: Beautiful, Rick. I'm struck by the image of the drop by drop, but also the image you gave us previously of the larger ocean of inter-connectivity and it really, it really paints the picture of one of the main ServiceSpace values, which is ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ -- you know, the Gandhi quote -- and, and I love that, you know. Count me in; I'll be one of those billion and ...
Rick: Alright, man, I think you're on; you're there already. We just need some more....
Kozo: We got two already, Rick, well, we got three already, we got Preeta too....
Rick: And the people listening, too, yeah....
Kozo: Yeah, so thank you so much, Rick.
Rick: Thank you for all, for everything you all are doing ... what you're all doing really, I wanted to jump into this, because of what you're all doing ... it's great, it's magnificent, and it's important.
Kozo: Thank you Rick, and thank you for, yeah, thank you for being that satellite for us as well, and we look forward to interacting with you. I'll send out, in the thank you note, I'll send out the RickHanson.net so people can get more information on the practices, and and just your work, and it's been a pleasure and thank you Preeta, and let's have a wonderful weekend and cultivate happiness.
Preeta: Thank you Rick.
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