Spiritual practice is about coming back, over and over again, to love and mindfulness, making those our home.
I subscribe to the newsletters of Rick Hanson, who contributes articles to Wildmind and who is a well-known author and neuropsychologist. He’s a very stimulating man! Today’s newsletter was an interesting one, and it prompted some thinking on my part.
He opens by asking a much-pondered question about human nature: “Deep down, are we basically good or bad?” From a neurological point of view, he comes down firmly on the side of good.
His reasoning is this:
When the body is not disturbed by hunger, thirst, pain, or illness, and when the mind is not disturbed by threat, frustration, or rejection, then most people settle into their resting state, a sustainable equilibrium in which the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind feels peaceful, happy, and loving.
Basically, he’s talking about the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for “fight, flee, or freeze” responses to potential danger) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” response that brings us back to balance when danger is past). Rick calls this “rest and digest” state the Responsive mode, and the “flight, flight, or freeze” state the Reactive mode.
Rick points out that the Responsive mode is our default state — a fundamental “strange attractor” in our brain states. And therefore, he says, it’s this relaxed and loving state that’s your true nature: “Your deepest nature is peace not hatred, happiness not greed, love not heartache, and wisdom not confusion.”
I don’t have any disagreement with this at all. What Rick is trying to do, I think, is to align neuroscience with certain Buddhist views of Buddha Nature which suggest that the mind is inherently pure and compassionate. Buddha Nature can be a useful way to see things as long as it’s not taken too seriously.
The thought I had, though, was that relaxation and rest, and even happiness and love, are not enough. It’s great to be free from stress — for a while. But then what happens if we stay relaxed? We start to seek out sources of excitement. We can’t handle too much peace! I don’t think that the resting state is actually a “sustainable equilibrium,” because rest and being “peaceful, happy, and loving” are not in themselves deeply satisfying enough for us. We always want something more. And the resting state is fragile because it’s always going to be challenged by events from our lives (a crazy day at the office, a child with a tantrum).
The untrained mind in Responsive mode can never be loving enough, or peaceful enough to avoid being tipped over into reactivity. So we need to deepen our capacity for responsiveness. We need to train the mind, and not simply relax. I’m not disagreeing with Rick or criticizing him, incidentally, — just drawing out some of the implications of his presentation; Rick suggests a number of ways in his newsletter of how we can “tip forward into our deepest nature.”
Cultivating attentiveness, or mindfulness, changes the base state of our Responsive mode so that it’s less prone to reactivity. With mindfulness we notice quicker when the mind is starting to slip into reactivity. And this allows us to act. In a mindful state we learn to regulate the brain’s “fight or flight” module, the amygdala. In fact, with repeated training the amygdala — the part of the brain largely responsible for the Reactive mode — gets smaller, the parts of the brain responsible for regulating the amygdala get larger, and the number of connections from one to the other (allowing for this regulation) increase.
Deepening our lovingkindness by training in metta — as Buddhism calls the loving response that wants others to be happy — also helps us to go more deeply into Rick’s Responsive mode. Lovingkindness allows us to calm down the amygdala faster. The amygdala’s task is to scan our environment, looking for danger, and to alert us (via a flood of visceral feelings) when it’s detected a potential threat. Lovingkindness allows us to see people as beings who want to be happy rather than as beings who want to hurt us (and very few people want to hurt us). Rather than seeing someone’s anger, say, as a threat to our peace of mind, we refocus on their wellbeing; how can I help this person be happier? and we develop more lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, as well. We take care of ourselves through compassion rather than through fear and anger.
These two practices, of mindfulness and lovingkindness, don’t fix thing instantly. But they help us bring ourselves back into the Responsive mode over and over again. And we do have to keep coming back, because our reactions to life’s events will keep propelling us into Reactive mode. That’s what training’s about; coming back over and over again to our purpose or living from a deeper level of fulfillment.
Lastly, a deep appreciation of change helps us to feel less threatened so that we can put the amygdala (perhaps, if this is what Awakening is really like) permanently offline, so that the Responsive mode becomes not just our default mode, but where we live, permanently.