Hardwiring Happiness

Taking in the good

SunnyI’ve been talking about ways to Hardwire Your Happiness on the blog lately. So I thought it would be great to give you a sense of how it feels to take in the good. If you are someone who usually focuses on the negative experiences in the world you can turn that around over time by Taking in the Good. I’ll suggest some prompts here that you can use in your everyday life to start changing the negativity bias in our lives into Teflon for the positive. Take my prompt and go through the first three steps outlined below on your own.

STEP 1. Have a positive experience

For example, you could think about things for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you’ve completed. As much as you can, help ideas like these become emotionally rewarding experiences; otherwise, it’s merely positive thinking.

STEP 2. Enrich it

Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense.

STEP 3. Absorb it

• Intend and sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it.

• Notice something pleasant that’s already present in your experience. Perhaps a relaxed sense of breathing, comfort, or curiosity.

• Find something good in your immediate situation. Perhaps something sturdy, well made, protective, useful, or beautiful, such as a cozy chair, a tree out the window, or a picture on the wall.

• Think of something you are glad about, in your life these days or in your past. It could be as simple as having a roof over your head.
hardwiring
• Bring to mind someone who makes you feel cared about. It need not be a perfect relationship, but the caring—the warmth for you, the wishing you well—is genuine.

• Bring to mind someone you like.

• Think of some things that help you feel strong . . .peaceful . . . grateful . . . happy . . . loved . . . loving.

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Feel the support

We’re all carrying a load, including tasks, challenges, worries, inner criticism, mistreatment from others, physical and emotional pain, loss and illness now or later, and everyday stresses and frustrations.

Take a moment to get a sense of your own load. It’s very real, isn’t it? Recognizing it is just honesty and self-compassion, not exaggeration or self-pity.

There’s a fundamental model in the health sciences that how you feel and function is based on just three factors: your load, the personal vulnerabilities it wears upon – such as health problems, a sensitive temperament, or a history of trauma – and the resources you have. As a law of nature, if your load or vulnerabilities increase – over a day, a year, or a lifetime – so must your resources. Otherwise, inevitably, you will get strained, depleted, and ground down. I’ve had times like this myself, and I’ve seen it in loved ones.

Outer resources are things like friends, health insurance, and a well-stocked refrigerator; inner resources include fortitude, positive emotions, and a kind heart. Do what you can to increase your outer resources, though many people have sadly few options there, such as the million or so children in America who are homeless every year. Meanwhile, you can grow your inner resources by taking in the good to build up inner strengths – including the felt sense of support.

The more you feel supported by the people that care about you, by the natural world, and by your own capabilities, the better you’ll feel. Plus your load won’t seem so heavy, and you’ll be more able to carry it. There’s also the matter of justice: if the support is real and is there for you, it is only fair for you to feel it. And the more supported you feel, the more supportive you’ll be toward others.

How?

In the practices that follow just below, you are not overlooking the ways that you are not actually supported. You are just focusing on that part of the whole truth that is the support that truly does exist for you. In particular, you are trying to help this recognition become an experience, a feeling of being supported, which might be subtle, but could still have a sense of ease, relief, calming, or happiness in it.

Try to make feeling supported a regular part of your day. For example, yesterday I went out for a walk and took a few seconds here and there to feel supported by my legs, the air I was breathing, the rock and roll mix in my earbuds, the technology that brought me this music, and the chance to watch some baseball with our son when I got back home.

Start with something that is literally solid and concrete. Sitting, standing, or walking, become aware of how your bones are holding you up. Shift your posture until there is a clear sense of being firmly supported. There could also be a sense of uprightness, dignity, or strength. Really register this whole experience of very physical support.

Also be aware of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling. Pick a sense and notice how it keeps working for you, probably without any effort on your part.

Know what it is like to support someone in your life: things don’t have to be perfect between you, but you still wish this person well and are basically on his or her side. Then bring to mind someone who you know cares about you. Also touch on others who wish you well, like you, or are rooting for you in some way. Soften and open to get a sense of this support; just like it would be OK for another person to feel your support, it is alright for you to feel the support of others.

Problem-solving or worrying – like thinking about how to pay the bills or nudge a relationship back to a better place – is necessary for coping, but it puts a natural focus on what’s not supportive. So stop problem-solving for at least a while every day. Even consider a whole day of rest! If your mind goes back to chewing on the worry bone, that’s natural. Just notice it and then guide your mind to where you do feel supported, even in the simple pleasure of a glass of water or a cookie.

When you are doing problem-solving or worrying, try to be aware of what is supportive, such as your own capabilities or the caring of others. For example, if you are grappling with a health problem, you could keep bringing to mind the sense of vitality in other parts of your body, or your determination to do whatever you can to deal with this issue, or the concern and kindness from your friends and family.

Try to feel the support that is coming to you . . . from yourself. You can know deep down that you are on your own side, that your benevolence and advocacy extend to yourself as well as to other beings.

Explore other sources of support, such as the sense of being nourished by the natural world, held by the earth, at peace in awareness itself, and if it’s meaningful to you, cradled in something spiritual.

This practice is down-to-earth and always available to you in one way or another.

And it can become something quite profound. Imagine going through much of your day with an ongoing feeling of being supported. Whew. What a relief!

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Four kinds of peace and how to experience them

“Peace” can sound merely sentimental or clichéd (“visualize whirled peas”). But deep down, it’s what most of us long for. Consider the proverb: The highest happiness is peace.

Not a peace inside that ignores pain in oneself or others, or is acquired by shutting down. This is a durable peace, a peace you can come home to even if it’s been covered over by fear, frustration, or heartache.

When you’re at peace – when you are engaged with life while also feeling relatively relaxed, calm, and safe – you are protected from stress, your immune system grows stronger, and you become more resilient. Your outlook brightens and you see more opportunities. In relationships, feeling at peace prevents overreactions, increases the odds of being treated well by others, and supports you in being clear and direct when you need to be.
How?
I think there are four kinds of peace, and I’ll point out where each might be found. The first two kinds are pretty straightforward, while the third and fourth take a person into the deep end of the pool. It’s helped me to notice, appreciate, and (hopefully) practice each of these. It’s OK to focus on just one for a while; any peace is better than none!

In particular, enjoy your peacefulness, wherever you find it. In our culture of pressure, invasive demands for attention, and jostling busyness, inner peace must be protected. When you experience it, enjoy it, which will help it sink into you, weaving its way into your brain so it increasingly becomes the habit of your mind.

The Peace of Ease
This is the peace of relaxation and relief, and it comes in many forms. You look out a window and feel calmer, talk through a problem with a friend, or finally make it to the bathroom. You exhale slowly, activating the soothing parasympathetic wing of your nervous system. You finish a batch of emails or dishes. You were worried about something but finally get good news.

Whew. At rest. It’s easy to underestimate this sort of peace but it really counts. Take it in when you feel it.

The Peace of Tranquility
This is deep quiet in mind and body. Perhaps you’ve felt this on first waking, before the mind kicks into gear. Or while sitting next to a mountain pond, something of its stillness seeps into your heart. At the end of a workout, meditation, or yoga, you might have felt serene.

When mind and body are this settled, there is no sense of deficit or disturbance, and no struggling with anything, or grasping after it, or clinging to others. There’s an inner freedom, a non-reactivity, that is wonderful.

The Peace of Awareness
This is a subtler kind of peace. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being upset and your mind is racing . . . and at the same time there is a place inside that is simply witnessing, untroubled by what it sees. Or you may have the sense of awareness as an open space in which sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, arise and disappear; the space itself is never ruffled or harmed by what passes through it.

I’m not speaking of anything mystical here, only what you can see directly in your own mind. As either a bare witness or the space through which the stream of consciousness flows, awareness itself is always at peace.

The Peace of What’s Unchanging
First, while most things continually change, some don’t; for example, the fact that things change doesn’t itself change. Two plus two will always equal four. The good thing you did this morning or last year will always have happened. Things that don’t change are reliable, which feels peaceful.

Second, while individual waves come and go, the ocean is always ocean. While the contents of the universe are changing, the universe as universe is not. You can get an intuition of this by recognizing that you are a local wave in a vast sea of human culture, nature, and the physical universe; yes, you are changing, but within an unchanging allness. The sense of this, even if fleeting, can really put you at peace.

Third, you could have a sense of something transcendental, something eternal, call it God, Spirit, the Unconditioned, or by no name at all. Beyond words, this offers “the peace that passeth understanding,” and I include it here because it is meaningful to many people (including myself).

* * *

May we all be at peace.

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