psychology and meditation

Seek out the good news

“Tell the truth.” It’s the foundation of science, ethics, and relationships.

But we have a brain that evolved to tell lies to help us survive. As I’ve written before, over several hundred million years our ancestors:

  • Had to avoid two kinds of mistakes: thinking there’s a tiger in the bushes but actually all is well, and thinking all is well but actually there is a tiger about to pounce. The cost of the first mistake is needless worry while the cost of the second one is no more gene copies. Mother Nature designed us to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once.
  • Had to get “carrots” and avoid “sticks.” If you don’t get a carrot today you’ll have another chance tomorrow, but if you don’t avoid that stick you’ll die and get no carrots forever. Consequently, negative experiences are fast-tracked into memory – “once burned, twice shy” – while most positive experiences slip through the brain like water through a sieve; in effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

As a result, we routinely overestimate threats while underestimating opportunities and resources. Yes, many people have an “optimism bias” in what they say – but in their actions, they work harder to avoid pain than to get pleasure, they remember failures and rejections more than successes and kindness from others, they need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions for a healthy relationship, and they muzzle themselves and play smaller in life to avoid a list of dreaded experiences.

It’s as if we live in a subtle nightmare in which the shadows and threats are exaggerated while our allies and inner resources seem distant and ineffectual. We think the dream is real so there’s no point in trying to wake up from it. Our beliefs in the dream trap us like the bars of an invisible cage.

The root cause of suffering and harm is ignorance, illusion, not seeing things as they actually are. But when we wake up and see the facts and live in the light, we feel so much freer, at ease, unthreatened, confident, overflowing, loved, and loving.

Remember some time in your past when you realized that things were not as bad as you thought, or that others were more caring, or that you were more capable. How did it feel in this instance to wake up from your own bad dream?

For instance, I recognized in my twenties that while growing up I’d been a nerd, not a wimp – a relief! Other examples from people I know: A woman realized she could be strong and people would still like her. People in recovery learn they can have a great time without being buzzed. Kids come to see that there’s no bogeyman in the closet. A girl gradually understands that she can let in her dad’s love even though he’s annoying. Another young woman lets it sink in that plenty of guys like her even though some are clustered around a “hot” classmate. A man in his 50’s realizes that no one cares whether he loses some hair. A woman finds out she can turn her art program into a publishable book.

Yes, sometimes when we wake up it’s to bad news: perhaps there’s a ceiling in your career, or you’ve been too cranky with your kids, or a partner is just not trustworthy in an important way. Living in the truth means seeing both good and bad clearly.

But because of the brain’s evolved negativity bias, most of the time when we wake up, it’s to truly good news.

How?

The good news that there’s no tiger – or that you can deal with it just fine
Consider your fears. Especially the everyday ones, such as: if I say how I really feel, people won’t like it; if I don’t lose these ten pounds, no guy worth having will want me; if I ask for a raise I’ll get criticized; if I start a little business, it will flop; if I take on some school loans it will be hard to pay them back.

How many are really true? What are the odds of them happening? If they indeed happened, how bad would it really be? And if the unlikely event did happen and if it felt really bad, how would you cope?

How does any anxiety in your temperament bias you to feel more threatened, more uneasy, more cautious than you reasonably need to be?

Think about the many things that protect and support you, from locks to laws, friends to credit cards. Think about the inner strengths you’ve used for tough times in the past, that you could draw upon to deal with challenges today.

The good news that you are full of good qualities, and that the world is full of opportunities you could likely fulfill with reasonable effort
Consider other abilities you have, like smarts, grit, talents, determination, integrity, passion, patience, sincerity, goodheartedness . . . to name a few.

What have you always wanted to do – but told yourself is out of reach?

Ask yourself what would happen if you invested just 20 minutes a day in meditation, or in exercise, or in supportive conversation with a friend or partner – or what would happen if you invested just an hour a day in all three.

What would happen if you spent half an hour a day or even a couple hours on some project, such as writing a book, laying the groundwork for changing careers, building a boat, learning a musical instrument, or making art – and could these hours add up over a single year?

The good news that you are liked, loved, and valued
Consider some of the many ways you have been seen, included, appreciated, liked, and loved. Think about the people who have seen the real you – and still cared about you. Can you see some of the many qualities you have that another person would recognize, respect, value, be drawn to, like to have on his or her team, be interested in, feel warmly toward, even cherish?

Consider the relationships you could readily have, the friends you could make, the love you could find if you drew on your courage to extend yourself, open up, stand up for what you need, and ask for what you want.

How about seeing the good in yourself, your own compassion, kindness, decency, good intentions, integrity, and loving heart.

If you trusted in the good news of your own goodness, how far and wide would you play in this life?

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Doctor Jekyll and Mister Amygdala

Poster from Jekyll & Hyde, 1931

A friend just wrote to me with a troubling story. He’s had a few upheavals in his life recently, including a divorce, but then he made a dreadful ethical slip and got involved with a former patient of his. Of course that’s a huge ethical no-no in the caring professions, and it may have life-long consequences for his career.

But in responding to my friend’s letter I was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Most of you know this story from cheesy horror movies, but the book is actually an astute spiritual parable that sprang directly from Stevenson’s subconscious in the form of a nightmare. The story stands up psychologically to the point where you can translate the characters into the terms of modern neuropsychology as represented by the work of author Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Dramatis Personae

  • Dr. Jekyll, who is the neocortex and mammalian brain, responsible for self-monitoring, planning, advanced cognition, empathy, and compassion.
  • Mr. Hyde, who is the “reptilian” part of the brain, concerned with fight, flight, and fulfilling appetites.

The Story

Henry Jekyll is a good doctor who helps many people through his work. He has a well-developed mammalian brain in which empathy and compassion are important. He is, however, deeply troubled by his amygdala-driven unexpressed bad-boy tendencies within. He is ashamed of them and afraid of them.

We all have “hindrances” — potentially destructive tendencies toward craving, hatred, and fear. Those tendencies manifest in our thoughts and our actions.

One thing all meditation teachers have to do is to let people know that it’s OK to have these hindrances. When people start self-monitoring (a neocortical activity), as they do when cultivating mindfulness, they start noticing distracted, craving, hateful thoughts. And their reaction is often to get upset about these. But that’s unhelpful, because that’s a case of responding to a hindrance with yet another hindrance. Yes, ultimately we want to get rid of the hindrances, but you can’t deal with them on their own terms, by getting angry about getting angry, or craving a lack of craving, or being afraid of being afraid, or getting despondent about noticing despondency.

These hindrances are not “bad.” They are actually mental behaviors that have evolved over millions of years in order to protect us. Someone threatens you, you get angry, they run away (hopefully). A big carnivore jumps out in front of you, you get scared, you run away. You see something you want, you grab it. And so forth. But these tendencies, while they work well in wolf-packs and worked well when we lived in caves, are maladapted for life in the modern world. Being angry with your computer when it’s working too slowly doesn’t change the computer, and just makes you unhappy and even ill. Bingeing on food because you want it can make us ill in different ways. Negative emotions undermine our relationships with others, so there’s a social cost. And even when they don’t have social or health drawbacks, our hindrances make us unhappy. Our sense of well-being is sub-optimal when we’re frustrated, or craving, or anxious.

The hindrances are not bad, they’re just strategies for finding security and wellbeing that happen not to work very well.

Dr. Jekyll is the man who sees these potentially destructive activities going on, but who is afraid of them. He’s the neocortex observing the amygdala. He identifies with his goodness, and psychologically disowns his hindrances. And he represses them. But in doing so, he’s acting out — internally — a form of violence driven by fear. The neocortex has been silently hijacked by the amygdala, since this fear actually stems from primitive, reptilian parts of the brain.

So Jekyll creates a drug that will anesthetize the bad boy within. He’s trying to anesthetize the amygdala, so that his neocortex no longer has to keep his “baser” instincts in check. But what he hasn’t realized is that over the years of repression, the bad boy has become much stronger. The repression Jekyll has done over the years is a form of inner violence, and thus has been feeding Hyde. And when Jekyll takes the potion it’s his good side (the neocortex, in modern terms) that goes offline, and the inner bad-boy (the reptile brain, the amygdala) that dominates. Mr. Edward Hyde is released. And it ain’t a pretty sight.

Once Hyde — a destructive monster who delights in violence and in indulging his unseemly appetites — is released, it’s impossible to keep him restrained. He becomes stronger with each outing. And indeed, when parts of the brain are exercised, the wiring in them becomes stronger. That part of the brain actually grows.

Of course the story doesn’t end well, and Jekyll is destroyed, but it’s a cautionary tale that we’re meant to learn from. So what should be learn?

What Jekyll should have done is to strengthen the neocortex by developing more mindfulness and compassion, so that the amygdala-driven Hyde would be known, contained without being repressed, and simply fade away through atrophy.

Easy to say! Let’s break that down a little.

When we stop reacting to the hindrances, and either simply accept them without acting on them, or cultivate their opposites — qualities of love, confidence, etc. — the neocortex actually grows. That part of the brain becomes thicker. The number of connections running back to the amygdala increases, so that the reassuring signals reaching it (“It’s OK. There’s no need to panic and get violent. I have this covered”) are stronger. And the amygdala actually shrinks. The brain is a real energy-hog, and takes a lot of work to maintain. If our fight-or-flight mechanisms are not needed, then the body somehow knows that it’s time to remove some of the brain circuitry necessary for those mechanisms.

So Dr. Jekyll is not conquered through fear and repression. He’s conquered through mindfulness and compassion.

It’s worth mentioning that this process of dealing skillfully with hindrances can be short-circuited by “spiritualizing” them. All those spiritual teachers who turn out to have been living double lives, giving inspiring teachings while sleeping with their students? Usually they’ve been telling themselves, and their partners, stories about how the relationships are “sacred” or an expression of non-duality. This is just another example of the amygdala hijacking the neocortex. The old way was, you want, you take. In a spiritual context you want. You make up a half-way convincing story. You take.

This reminds us that Mr. Hyde is sneaky. We need to give the neocortical Dr. Jekyll a lot of exercise, through practicing mindfulness and compassion. And we also need other people to give us feedback and to call us on our bullshit. We need sanghas. Getting enlightened is a team sport.

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Meditators’ acceptance of emotions key to self-control

We know that people who meditate do better on tasks that require self-control. It turns out that meditators’ openness to their own emotions is the reason, according to new research from the University of Toronto Scarborough.

“These results suggest that willpower or self-control may be sharpest in people who are sensitive and open to their own emotional experiences. Willpower, in other words, may relate to ‘emotional intelligence’,” said Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at UTSC. He co-authored the paper with PhD student Rimma Teper.

For psychologists, self-control or “executive control” is the ability to pay attention to appropriate stimuli and to initiate appropriate behavior while inhibiting inappropriate behavior. It’s what keeps you studying when you’d rather be watching TV, or lets you force yourself outside for a morning run rather than turn over and go back to sleep.

Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks. But it’s never been clear why, says Teper.

Most meditation traditions emphasize two major practices: awareness of the present moment, and acceptance of emotional states. It was possible that the practice of maintaining awareness of the moment strengthened executive control. But Teper and Inzlicht suspected emotional acceptance played a bigger role.

In a paper scheduled for publication in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, they looked at something called the Error Related Negativity (ERN). ERN is an electrical signal that shows up in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed, well before our conscious minds are aware of the error.

“It’s kind of like an ‘uh-oh’ response, or a cortical alarm bell,” Teper says.

For the study, the researchers asked participants about their experience meditating, and gave tests that measured how mindful they were of the present moment, and also how aware and accepting they were of their emotions.

The researchers then hooked up participants to an electroencephalograph and gave them something called the Stroop test. In the test, participants are shown the name of a colour written in letters of a different colour – for instance, the word “red” spelled in green letters. Participants are asked to say the colour of the letters. The test requires them to suppress the tendency to read the word, and instead to concentrate on actual colours.

Meditators were generally better than non-meditators at the test, and also had generally stronger ERN responses. Looking further, the researchers found that the best performers were those who scored highest on emotional acceptance, and that mindful awareness – the more cognitive aspect of mindfulness ­– had less to do with success on the test.

Teper says that the ERN may have a motivational or affective component – in other words, it gives you a bad feeling about failing at a task, and the feeling may motivate you to do better. Because meditators are more aware of their feelings, they may pick up on that feeling more quickly and use it to improve their behavior.

“Meditators are attuned to their emotions. They’re also good at regulating their emotions. It fits well with our results,” Teper says.

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Eight steps to forgiveness

Forgiveness is a tricky topic.

First, it has two distinct meanings:

  • To give up resentment or anger
  • To pardon an offense; to stop seeking punishment or recompense

Here, I am going to focus on the first meaning, which is broad enough to include situations where you have not let someone off the hook morally or legally, but you still want to come to peace about whatever happened. Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.

Second, there is sometimes the fear that if you forgive people, that means you approve of their behavior (like giving them a free pass for wrongdoing). Actually, you can both view an action as morally reprehensible and no longer be angry at the person who did it. You could continue to feel sad at the impacts on you and others – and to take action to make sure it never happens again – but you no longer feel aggrieved, reproachful, or vengeful.

Third, forgiveness can seem lofty, like it only applies to big things, like crimes or adultery. But most forgiving is for the small bruises of daily life, when others let you down, thwart or hassle you, or just rub you the wrong way.

Fourth, paradoxically, in my experience, the person who gains the most from forgiveness is usually the one who does the forgiving. One reason is that we often forgive people who never know we’ve forgiven them; much of the time they never knew we felt wronged in the first place! Further, consider two situations: in one, someone has a grudge against you but then forgives you; in the other situation, you have a grudge against someone but then let it go. Which situation takes more of a weight off of your heart? Generally it’s the second one, since you take your own heart wherever you go.

Fundamentally, forgiveness frees you from the tangles of anger and retribution, and from preoccupations with the past or with the running case in your mind about the person you’re mad at. It shifts your sense of self from a passive one in which bad things happen to you, to one in which you are active in changing your own attitudes: you’re a hammer now, no longer a nail. It widens your view to see the truth of the many, many things that make people act as they do, placing whatever happened in context, in a larger whole.

And most profoundly, as you forgive yourself – which can coincide with serious corrections in your own thoughts, words, and deeds – your own deep and natural goodness is increasingly revealed.

How?

  1. As best you can, take care of yourself and those you care for. Protect yourself against ongoing or potential harms. Do what you can to repair the damage done to you. Keep making your life a good one.
  2. Ask for support. We are intensely, viscerally social animals. It is much easier to forgive your trespassers after others bear witness to the ways you’ve been mistreated. (This point also speaks to the importance of bearing witness to harms done to others, whether it is the impact of a teenager’s coldness on your mate, or the impacts of religious prejudice on millions of people.)
  3. Honor the wound. Try not to be overwhelmed, but open to the shock, hurt, sense of injustice, anger, or other aspects of the experience. Allow the thoughts and feelings and related desires to have breathing room, and to ebb and flow over time with their own organic rhythms. Forgiveness is not about shutting down your feelings; opening to the experience in a big space of mindful awareness is an aid to forgiveness.
  4. Check your story. Watch out for exaggerating how awful, significant, or unforgivable the incident was. Be careful about assuming intent; with modern life, most of us are pretty stressed and scatterbrained much of the time; maybe you unfortunately just bumped into someone else’s bad day. Put the event in perspective: was it really that big a deal, given all the other good things about the person who upset you? Maybe it was, but maybe it wasn’t.
  5. Appreciate the value of forgiveness. Ask yourself: what does my grievance, my resentment, cost me? Cost others I care about? What would it be like to lay those burdens down?
  6. See the big picture. Consider the “10,000 causes” upstream from the person who hurt you, like his or her life and childhood, parents, finances, temperament, health, mental state just before whatever happened, etc.
  7. Try not to take wounds so personally. There’s an old saying: each day wounds, and the last one kills. We all get wounded. This doesn’t mean making yourself a target or letting wrongdoers off the hook, but it does mean recognizing that the price of being alive includes some inevitable pain – and the risk of serious injury in one form or another. It’s not personal. It’s life. We don’t need to feel offended by it.
  8. Help yourself come to peace. Accept that the past is fixed and will not change; the bad thing will never not have happened. Disengage your mind from your story, narrative, “case” about the events. Steer clear of people who fan the flames of outrage. Focus on the good things in your life, on gratitude. It’s bad enough that people have harmed you; don’t add insult to injury by getting caught up with them inside your own head; for example, they may have gotten away with some of your money, but don’t also give them your mind.
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Tone down the negative, enhance the positive

Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish – and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.

But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others – including mine – or your own in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing, and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already – including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age, and death – without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.

Your brain evolved exactly such a “negativity bias” in order to help your ancestors pass on their genes – a bias that produces lots of collateral damage today.

Painful experiences are more than passing discomforts. They produce lasting harms to your physical and mental health. When you’re feeling frazzled, pressured, down, hard on yourself, or simply frustrated, that:

  • Weakens your immune system
  • Impairs nutrient absorption in your gastrointestinal system
  • Increases vulnerabilities in your cardiovascular system
  • Decreases your reproductive hormones; exacerbates PMS
  • Disturbs your nervous system

Consider the famous saying: “Neurons that wire together, fire together.” This means that repeated painful experiences – even mild ones – tend to:

  • Increase pessimism, anxiety, and irritability
  • Lower your mood
  • Reduce ambition and positive risk-taking

In couples, upsetting experiences foster mistrust, heightened sensitivity to relatively small issues, distance, and vicious cycles. At much larger scales – between groups or nations – they do much the same.

So don’t take painful experiences lightly, neither the ones you get nor, honestly, the ones you give. Prevent them when you can, and help them pass through when you can’t.

How?

This week, take a stand for yourself, for feeling as good as you reasonably can. A stand for bearing painful experiences when they walk through the door – and a stand for encouraging them to keep on walking, all the way out of your mind.

This is not being at war with discomfort or distress, which would just add negativity, like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Instead, it is being kind to yourself, wise and realistic about the toxic effects of painful experiences.

In effect, you’re simply saying to yourself something you’d say to a dear friend in pain: I want you to feel better, and I’m going to help you. Try saying that to yourself in your mind right now. How does it feel?

When emotional pain does come, even softly, try to hold it in a large space of awareness. In a traditional metaphor, imagine stirring a big spoon of salt into a cup of water and then drinking it: yuck. But then imagine stirring that spoonful into a clean bucket of water and then drinking a cup: it’s the same amount of salt – the same amount of worry or frustration, feeling inadequate or blue – but held in a larger context. Notice that awareness is without any edges, boundless like the sky, with thoughts and feelings passing through.

In your mind, watch out for how negative information, events, or experiences can seem to overpower positive ones. For example, researchers have found that people typically will work harder or put up with more crud to avoid losing something than to gain the same thing. And they feel more contaminated by one fault than they feel cleansed or elevated by several virtues. Try to switch this around; for instance, pick some of your good qualities and keep seeing how they show up in your life this week.

Be careful whenever you feel stymied, frustrated, or disappointed. Humans (and other mammals) are very vulnerable to what’s called “learned helplessness” – developing a sense of futility, immobilization, and passivity. Focus on where you can make a difference, where you do have power; it may only be inside your own mind, but that’s better than nothing at all.

In your relationships, be mindful of reacting more strongly to one negative event than to a bunch of positive ones. For example, studies have shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative encounter. Pick an important relationship, and then really pay attention to what’s working in it; let yourself feel good about these things. Deal with the problems in this relationship, sure, but keep them in perspective.

Overall, whenever you remember, deliberately tilt toward the positive in your mind. That’s not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Given the negativity bias in the brain, you’re only leveling the playing field.

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Stanford studies monks’ meditation, compassion

Meredith May: Stanford neuroeconomist Brian Knutson is an expert in the pleasure center of the brain that works in tandem with our financial decisions – the biology behind why we bypass the kitchen coffeemaker to buy the $4 Starbucks coffee every day.

He can hook you up to a brain scanner, take you on a simulated shopping spree and tell by looking at your nucleus accumbens – an area deep inside your brain associated with fight, flight, eating and fornicating – how you process risk and reward, whether you’re a spendthrift or a tightwad.

So when his colleagues saw him putting Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns into …

Read the original article »

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Don’t be intimidated

On a blog at the Huffington Post, I used the example of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive” as a timely illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful – since that helped keep our ancestors alive – so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” With his march, Colbert was obviously mocking those who play on fear, since we certainly don’t need any new reminders to keep fear alive.

This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families to schoolyards, organizations, and nations. Whether it’s an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that’s routinely told it’s under “Threat Level Orange” – it’s the same human brain that reacts in all cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom, and sense of inner strength – a mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

How?

The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard – pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll probably have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Body and Brain Going Negative

Consequently, your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. For example, intense pain can be produced all over the body, but intense pleasure comes only (for most people) from stimulating a few specific regions.

In your brain, there are separate (though interacting) systems for negative and positive stimuli. At a larger scale, the left hemisphere is somewhat specialized for positive experiences while the right hemisphere is more focused on negative ones (this makes sense since the right hemisphere is specialized for gestalt, visual-spatial processing, so it’s advantaged for tracking threats coming from the surrounding environment).

Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense (e.g., loud, bright) positive ones. They are also perceived more easily and quickly. For example, people in studies can identify angry faces faster than happy ones; even if they are shown these images so quickly (just a tenth of a second or so) that they cannot have any conscious recognition of them, the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will still get activated by the angry faces.

The alarm bell of your brain – the amygdala (you’ve got two of these little almond-shaped regions, one on either side of your head) – uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative. Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory – in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage.

In effect, as I wrote on Huff Post, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain (alas) than pleasure. (For more on the neuropsychology of the negativity bias, and references, see the slide sets on my website.)

That learning from your childhood and adulthood – both what you experienced yourself and saw others experiencing around you – is locked and loaded in your head today, ready for immediate activation, whether by a frown across a dinner table or by TV images of a car-bombing 10,000 miles away.

What to Do?

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm – whether it’s a family member who threatens emotional punishment or political figures talking about inner or outer enemies. Consider for yourself whether their fears are valid – or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

This mindfulness of both the inner workings of your brain and the outer mechanisms of fear-promotion can by itself make you less prone to needless fear.

Then you won’t be so vulnerable to intimidation by apparent “tigers” that are in fact manageable, blown out of proportion, or made of paper-mache.

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Relax, you’ve arrived

We spend so much of our time trying to get somewhere.

Part of this comes from our biological nature. To survive, animals – including us – have to be goal-directed, leaning into the future.

It’s certainly healthy to pursue wholesome aims, like paying the rent on time, raising children well, healing old pain, or improving education.

But it’s also important to see how this focus on the future – on endless striving, on getting the next task done, on climbing the next mountain – can get confused and stressful.

It’s confused because the brain:

  • Overestimates both the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. (This evolved to motivate our ancient ancestors to chase carrots hard and really dodge sticks.)
  • Makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn’t actually exist and never will. There is only now, forever and always.
  • Overlooks or minimizes the alrightness of this moment – including the many things already resolved or accomplished – in order to keep you looking for the next threat or opportunity. (For more on how the brain makes us stressed and fearful, see Buddha’s Brain.)

Further, this pursuit of the next thing is confused because the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present, such as to be safe, worthy, attractive, successful, or loved. These longings often take on a life of their own – even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how long we chase it, it’s always still ahead, never attained. For example, for years I pursued achievement due to underlying feelings of inadequacy; how many accomplishments does a person need to feel like a worthwhile person?

Besides being confused and confusing, striving is stressful. You’ve got to fire up, activating the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system and its related stress hormones. There’s a sense of pressure, of worry about a future that’s inherently uncertain, of entrapment on a neverending treadmill. There’s a lack of soothing and balance that would come from recognizing the truth of things:

You’ve actually already arrived.

How?

Recognize the simple fact that you got here, in this place, and now, in this moment. It may not be perfect. But think of the many things you have certainly done to come here. At a minimum, you survived high school! You’ve taken many steps, solved many problems, put many tasks and challenges behind you.

The word, “arrive,” comes from roots that mean “to reach the shore.” Once you land, of course, life is not over, since the next moment will be a new arrival. But sinking into the sense of having arrived, of having crossed the finish line of this moment, is calming, happy, and deserved. And knowing you’ve arrived, you now are more able to turn your attention toward being of true service to others.

To deepen the sense of arrival, help yourself relax into this moment. From time to time, you could softly say in your mind: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . .

Draw on your body to strengthen this experience. Let each breath land in your awareness: arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Be aware of the bite landing in the mouth, the meal consumed, the body fed. As you walk, notice that, with each step, you have reached another place. Know that your hand has reached a cup, that the eye has received a sunset, that the smile of a friend has landed in your heart.

Consider old longings, old drives, that truly may be fulfilled, at least to a reasonable extent. (And if not fulfilled, maybe it’s time to let something go and move on.) Can you lighten up about these? Or can you accept that you have arrived at a place this moment that contains unfulfilled goals and unmet needs? It’s still an arrival. Plus it’s a “shore” that probably has many good things about it no matter what’s still undone.

In the deepest sense, reflect on the fact that each moment arrives complete in itself. Each wave lands on the shore of Now – complete in its own right.

Arriving . . . arrived . . . arriving . . . Arrived.

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Hold your wants lightly

Getting caught up in wanting – wanting both to get what’s pleasant and to avoid what’s unpleasant – is a major source of suffering and harm for oneself and others.

First, a lot of what we want to get comes with a big price tag – such as that second cupcake, constant stimulation via TV and websites, lashing out in anger, intoxication, over-working, or manipulating others to get approval or love. On a larger scale, the consumer-based lifestyle widespread in Western nations leads them to eat up – often literally – a huge portion of the world’s resources.

Similarly, much of what we want to avoid – like the discomfort of speaking out, some kinds of psychological or spiritual growth, standing up for others, exercising, being emotionally vulnerable, or really going after one’s dreams – would actually be really good for oneself and others.

Second, some wants are certainly wholesome, such as wishing that you and others are safe, healthy, happy, and living with ease; it’s natural to want to give and receive love, to express yourself creatively, to be OK financially, to be treated with respect, to make a big contribution, or to rise high in your career. And many things in life are pleasurable – some of my personal favorites are morning coffee with my wife, walking in wilderness, watching the SF Giants win the World Series last year, seeing kids flourish, writing these JOTs, and laughing with friends at dinner.

But even with wholesome wants and pleasures, trouble comes when we get driven about them – grasping after them, insisting that they continue, craving and clinging, taking it personally when there’s a hitch, getting pushy, or staying in a tunnel with no cheese. The art is to pursue wholesome desires with enthusiasm, discipline, and skill without getting all hot and bothered about them – and to enjoy life’s pleasures without getting attached to them.

For even the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences always end. You are routinely separated from things you enjoy. And someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, children leave home, careers end, and eventually your own final breath comes and goes. Everything that begins must also cease. Everything that comes together must also disperse.

Given this truth, grabbing after or clutching onto the things we want is hopeless and painful. To use an analogy from the Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah: if getting upset about something unpleasant is like being bitten by a snake, grasping for what’s pleasant is like grabbing the snake’s tail; sooner or later, it will still bite you.

Therefore, holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing you more ease and less trouble from your desires, and creating less trouble for others – even across the world. And if you take it all the way to its end, holding wants lightly is a powerful vehicle for liberation from all of the suffering rooted in desire.

How?

For starters, be aware of wanting inside your own mind. Try to notice:

  • The ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense or uncomfortable.
  • The emotional pain of not getting what you want. Including disappointment, frustration, discouragement-perhaps even hopelessness or despair.
  • The frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expected to get from a want, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it.

Similarly, notice that the anticipated pain from the things you want to avoid – especially things that would be good for you to open to or go after – is usually worse than the discomfort you actually feel. In effect, your brain is routinely lying to you, promising more pleasure and more pain than you will actually experience. The reason is that the pleasure and pain circuits of the brain are ancient and primitive, and they manipulated our ancestors to do things for their survival by overselling them about apparent opportunities and over-frightening them about apparent risks.

  • The costs of pursuing the things you want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things you don’t want. What is the cost/benefit ratio, really?
  • The ways that every pleasant experience must inevitably change and end.

Next, imagine you are observing your wants from a great distance, like seeing them from on top of a mountain as if they are down in a valley below. Let them and go like clouds in the vast sky of awareness. They are just one more mental content, like sensations, thoughts, or memories. Don’t give them special status. They are just wants. You don’t need to act on them. Usually, they’ll just pass away after awhile.

Then, on paper or in your mind, make a list of problematic wants:

  • Things you’ve wanted to get but are either not good for you or others, or come with too high a price.
  • Things you’ve wanted to avoid, but are actually good for you and others.

Live with this list. Stare at it. Listen to what it says to you. Perhaps talk about it with others (maybe a therapist). Then make a plan for what you are committing to do about it. Honor this plan; if possible, tell others about it.

Also list wholesome wants that you would like to pursue more. (Some of these may be suggested implicitly by the list above of what you’ve wanted to avoid.) Hang out with this list for awhile, perhaps discussing it with others. Then make a sincere plan for what you are committing to do about it. Your wholesome wants will help crowd out the unwholesome ones.

I know what I am suggesting here about these two lists is a big deal, much easier said than done. I’ve been grappling lately with a couple of my own items on these lists, and it’s not easy. But we can be aware of our issues forever – even mindfully aware! – while still never doing anything about them.

After you’ve stared at the garden for awhile … it’s time to pull weeds and plant flowers.

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Natural Brilliance, by Irini Rockwell

The subtitle of Irini Rockwell’s new book, Natural Brilliance: A Buddhist System for Uncovering Your Strengths and Letting them Shine, reads like a self-help book, and, yes, it is emphatically about helping ourselves. Yet, as you might imagine from a Buddhist teacher, the emphasis of the book is very much about helping us out of ourselves. As Irini writes, “When we are fully present … there is a tangible experience of the boundary of self dissolving and a sense of mingling with sights, sounds, smells, tastes.” Throughout “Natural Brilliance,” Irini acknowledges the richness and basic goodness of our inner world and offers a set of teachings that mean to guide us on the path toward transcending our self by becoming our best self.

Title: Natural Brilliance
Author: Irini Rockwell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1-59030-932-2
Available from: Random House, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Irini Rockwell, is a senior teacher in the Shambhala community and a student of Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Her first book, The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personalities, Emotions, and Relationships (2002) grew out of her work with the Five Wisdoms Institute where she is currently the director and senior teacher.

The five wisdom energies are the dimensions of a comprehensive system in Tibetan Buddhism for describing and understanding everything we think, feel, say and do: in short, it is a conceptual system for making sense of our human experience. The five wisdom qualities are:

  • Spaciousness (Buddha)
  • Clarity (Vajra)
  • Richness (Ratna)
  • Passion (Padma)
  • Activity (Karma).

Irini calls this system of qualities a “model of human dynamics.” Each of these qualities plays out in our personal experience in both dysfunctional and constructive traits. Gaining an understanding of our own unique energy patterns gives us a context for our strengths and weaknesses and the awareness to change in healthy ways. The energy of Karma, for example, can manifest in us skillfully as ‘productivity’ while at different times it can also manifest unskillfully as ‘manipulation’. The trick, as we gain awareness of these conditioned patterns, is to allow our inherent wisdom to guide us toward more skillful behavior.

In the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, these five qualities are overlapping aspects of an all-pervasive energetic dimension of reality that affects our inner world, our interpersonal world, and our relationship to our environment. The five wisdoms are inherent in all of us and can be drawn on at any time. When we begin to understand the unique ways that the wisdom energies play through our own person, we are enabled to redirect the energies in ways that offer us positivity, creativity, productivity, spaciousness and ultimately inner peace.

For Irini, “understanding sense perception is key to understanding reality.” Being grounded in a deep awareness of our sense perceptions frees us from attachment to our thoughts and feeling and grants us a certain spaciousness as we open out of the self-limiting world of thoughts and feelings. The experience of selflessness comes as we begin to drop our mental and emotional preoccupations (conditioning) and experience our wordless, thoughtless, immediate relationship with the world. In our day to day living, however, we become caught up in our busy minds and emotional reactivity and block our direct experience of our sense perceptions:

“In general, we don’t experience; we conceptualize…We cloud direct experience and thus have a dull, distorted view of our world. We cannot relate to ourselves or the world in a genuine way.” (Natural Brilliance page 37)

The five wisdoms are pointers that guide us back to a direct experience of our senses and back to an authentic relationship with ourselves and our world.

Natural Brilliance, in following its precursor, The Five Wisdom Energies, has the more directed purpose of applying the five wisdoms to our personal, social, and professional lives. The second part of “Natural Brilliance”, for example, a good two thirds of the book, is dedicated to applying the five wisdoms to leadership development and productivity in the workplace. Specific chapters address mindfulness, personal authenticity, intimate relationships, working with others and cultivating wisdom in our professional arenas.

In the chapter titled, “Engaging Effectively,” for example, Irini shares with us specifics about how to bring our understanding of the wisdom energies in ourselves and others to bear on workplace dynamics, communication, creativity and conflict resolution. Irini uses case studies, personal anecdotes and detailed exercises to explore the possibilities of engaging with others without reactivity and bias. She offers the five wisdom framework for skillful communication which is based on clear understanding and mindfulness.

To the uninitiated, the five wisdoms system can feel confusing and foreign. Like with reading a good novel, I was a few chapters in before I began to ‘get it’. Still, Irini writes with a real passion for the well-being of others and what seems like an uncompromising authenticity. Her personal narratives and real life examples are both instructive and entertaining. As a vehicle of self-understanding, personal enrichment and a tool for engaging with others, the five wisdoms model is intensely powerful.

For many of us, engaging with the five wisdoms will be an opportunity to release our attachment to our fixed views of ourselves and open to our beingness as a conduit for wisdom and deep interconnectedness with all things. The five wisdoms offer a thorough template through which to view our personal world, both inside and out. One could only benefit from integrating this perspective into their lives.

“What we come back to again and again is that fundamentally our sanity is intrinsic: we are good, sane, intelligent people. We have a soft spot and can relate to the world in a gentle way. When we experience a sense of well-being, we know this.” (“Natural Brilliance page 73)

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