Rick Hanson PhD
Sep 07, 2011
Feed the mouse: using appreciation to generate inner nourishment
As the nervous system evolved, your brain developed in three stages:
- Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
- Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
- Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”
Since the brain is integrated, avoiding, approaching, and attaching are accomplished by its parts working together. Nonetheless, each of these functions is particularly served and shaped by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it.
Petting your inner lizard was about how to soothe and calm the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. This article continues the series by focusing on how to help the early mammalian parts of your brain feel rewarded, satisfied, and fulfilled: in a word, fed.
This has many benefits. For starters, when you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving. The hungry heart gets a full meal; goals are attained and the striving for them relaxes; one feels lifted by life as it is. What a relief!
Feeling fed also helps you enjoy positive emotions such as pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease, and worth. As Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers have shown, these good feelings reduce stress, help people bounce back from illness and loss, strengthen resilience, draw attention to the big picture, and build inner resources. And when your own cup runneth over, studies have found that you’re more inclined to give to others; feeling good helps you do good.
Last, consider this matter in a larger context. Many of us live in an economy that emphasizes endless consumer demand and in a culture that emphasizes endless striving for success and status. Sure, enjoy a nice new sweater and pursue healthy ambitions. But it’s also vitally important – both for ourselves and for the planet whose resources we’re devouring like kids gorging on cake – that we appreciate the many ways we already have so, SO much.
So, in everyday life, draw on opportunities to feel fed – and as you do, really take in these experiences, weaving them into the fabric of your brain and being. For example:
- While eating, be aware of the food going into you, becoming a part of you. Take pleasure in eating, and know that you are getting enough.
- While breathing, know that you are getting all the oxygen you need.
- Absorb sights and sounds, smells and touches. Open to the sense of how these benefit you; for instance, recognize that the seeing of a green light, a passage in a book, or a flower is good for you.
- Receive the warmth and help of other people, which comes in many ways, including compassion, kindness, humor, practical aid, and useful information.
- Get a sense of being supported by the natural world: by the ground you walk on, by sunlight and water, by plants and animals, by the universe itself.
- Feel protected, enabled, and delighted by human craft, ranging from the wheel to the Hubble telescope, with things like glass, paper, refrigerators, the internet, and painkillers in between.
- Be aware of money coming to you, whether it’s what you’re earning hour by hour or project by project, or the financial support of others (probably in a frame in which you are supporting them in other ways).
- Notice the accomplishment of goals, particularly little ones like washing a dish, making it to work, or pushing “send” on an email. Register the sense of an aim attained, and help yourself feel at least a little rewarded.
- Appreciate how even difficult experiences are bringing good things to you. For example, even though exercise can be uncomfortable, it feeds your muscle fibers, immune system, and heart.
- Right now – having read this list just above – let yourself be fed . . . by knowing that many many things can feed you!
Then, from time to time – such as at meals or just before sleep – take a moment to appreciate some of what you’ve already received. Consider the food you’ve taken in, the things you’ve gotten done, the material well-being you do have, the love that’s come your way. Sure, we’ve all sometimes had to slurp a thin soup; but to put these shortfalls in perspective, take a moment to consider how little so many people worldwide have, a billion of whom will go to bed hungry tonight.
As you register the sense of being fed, in one way or another, help it sink down into yourself. Imagine a little furry part of you that’s nibbling away at all this “food,” chewing and swallowing from a huge, abundant pile of goodies that’s greater than anyone – mouse or human – can ever consume. Take your time with the felt sense of absorbing, internalizing, digesting, There’s more than enough. Let knowing this sink in again and again.
Turn as well into the present – the only time we are ever truly fed. In the past there may not have been enough, in the future there may not be enough . . . but right now, in what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Pure Land of this moment, most of us most of the time are buoyed by so many blessings. Falling open and into the Now, being now, fed by simply being, by being itself.