I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and NY Times Best-Selling Author of Resilient & Buddha’s Brain. He is a delightful person to be with. Rick is a genius in his own right but is also very down to earth and real. We connected right away and I was excited to geek out with him on the subject of meditation.
Here are 3 things I learned during our time together:
- You engage different parts of the brain when you practice different kinds of mindfulness practices. For example, your brain responds differently when you’re focused on a single task at hand versus a heart practice of unconditional love.
- The shape and matter of your brain reflect your inner-state. It’s possible to have a “stressed brain.” Mindfulness helps create new pathways in the brain for pleasure and positive states of being.
- Rick has a first aid “go-to” toolkit when you feel anxiety. It’s 4 simple steps. The first is to admit what you feel. Say to yourself, “I feel upset!” This is 50% of the practice. You can receive the rest of the toolkit in the interview.
And lastly, Rick shares a beautiful parable about taking in the good of life drop by drop. This relates to the title of this post and learning how to microdose the good in your life. Learn how to cultivate virtue and goodwill towards yourself and others. This will increase your resilience to stress.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s new book, “Neurodharma” that comes out in the Spring of 2020. Learn more about Rick’s work at rickhanson.net.
“The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences—and in particular, to take them in so they become a permanent part of you.”
― Rick Hanson
Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
For those of you that prefer to read instead of watching or listening, here’s the conversation transcript:
Hi, everyone. I’m so excited to have Dr. Rick Hanson. Join us today. He is a psychologist. He is a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science at UC Berkeley. And he’s also a New York Times bestselling author. He’s written Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness and Buddha’s brain.
Hi there. And I’d like to get a word in on a book I just finished that I’m in love with. It’ll come out in May 2020. It’s called Neurodharma: New science, ancient wisdom and seven practices of the highest happiness. So I want to add Neurodharma to that list. It’s my sixth book actually, at this point.
Maybe we could start by talking about Neurodharma.
Well, the basic idea is to take all the different practices to get to the mountain of awakening, right, and to draw on the Buddhist roadmap of the mind to identify what’s the most effective things that we can do informed by modern science. So this is not a book for Buddhists per se. It really draws on the Buddhist model of the mind, which is a very penetrating model and not mystical or metaphysical and then informed by science by asking ourselves what’s going on in the brain.
When our minds are really steady, our hearts are really open. We feel balanced and a quantumness with a sense of contentment. Those are the first three of seven practices, steadiness of mind, warmth of heart, balance, equanimity, and then also what’s happening in the brain, when we have a sense of non-dual hold rested right in the present moment, connected to everything.
Those are the next three, and even what could be happening in the brain, as we engage what some called the unconditioned, the deathless, the eternal, even the transcendental. I call that timelessness. So those are the seven practices. And what the books about is the new science of how to strengthen the circuitry, of those seven ways of being, so that increasingly we embody them. It’s pretty cool stuff.
And I’m curious to Rick, is there a way of being in different parts of our brain? There are different practices that we can engage in, from mindfulness to meditation to prayer, and how do these different practices activate the parts of the brain or even the body? What do you find to be effective?
It’s a great question. And first, what the science tells us is that our experiences depend upon what our body is doing. And that’s true for us. For a cat, the experiences of a cat or a squirrel depend on what the body of that creature is doing, especially its nervous system, and in particular, its brain. So when we speak of the brain, it’s because it’s the primary local source of the hearing, the seeing the remembering the intuitive, the enjoying the suffering that we’re experiencing in the moment. But what’s happening in the brain is of course, part of a larger network of factors in the body as a whole and then reaching out into life and culture and nature and back into deep time.
So all that’s true. But that said, Now I’m going to talk about what’s happening in the three pounds of tofu inside the coconut. Different parts of the brain do different things, just like there are parts of your body that do different things. And so when people are engaged with different kinds of, let’s say meditative practice, so let’s contrast, a sense of mindful concentration on the sensations of breathing, classic meditation. Contrast that with, let’s say, practices of Bhakti, or devotion or strong feelings of compassion and kindness radiating in all directions, or a sense of tuning into the love of Christ, for example, is a form of prayer. Alright.
Acknowledging that whatever might be going on outside of ordinary reality, whatever that part is inside ordinary reality. For example, when a person is doing a focused meditation on the breath practice, they tend to be engaging parts of the brain right behind the forehead, the executive regions of the brain that exercise kind of top-down control, and including a part of the brain called the anterior which just means for frontal cingulate cortex. They’re two of these, but they’re spoken up, typically the singular, they’re kind of in the middle of the brain kind of starting behind the forehead. And they that part of the brain, the singular cortex keeps us focused.
So you can imagine right there that you know what you’re doing when you’re staying focused on the sensations of breathing, you’re working the muscles in the brain, as it were, that are engaged with things like foot focus, and deliberate sustaining of a task, as well as some parts of the brain that are tuning into those sensations of breathing, such as in the insula, on the inside of the temporal lobes, is how we tune into the interior of our body. And as you repeatedly stimulate those parts of the brain, you’re going to strike them like organ and muscle so they get literally bigger and research shows MRIs and other kinds of findings, that when people repeatedly practice those kinds of meditations, they build up tissue and they strengthen systems in parts of the brain that do that.
On the other hand, if someone’s doing something very heartfelt and devotional, they’re going to use a little bit of these executive regions behind the forehead just to sustain the focus. But a lot of what they’re engaging our pleasure systems in the brain, frankly, that involve that are involved with heartfelt feelings, natural opioids, oxytocin, and subcortical regions of the brain that kind of sit beneath the modern neocortex, which is like the outside cap of the brain under that cap, or more ancient regions like the amygdala and hippocampus that started emerging around 200 million years ago. And those parts of the brain will be more active if you’re doing a devotional practice, and with time those to become more strengthened. So people developed the habit of unconditional love, universal compassion. As well as potentially the habit of being courageous and heartfelt, therefore, courageous on your own behalf.
So could you intentionally hang out in different parts in your brain during practice? Because it seems most of us are in that frontal part of the brain. But by pulling it back and maybe going a little bit back in the brain, perhaps I could change one’s perspective. And to add something else. Yeah, it seems that women and men have differences in their brain and that men tend to gravitate towards certain kind of mindfulness practices. And women really love like visualization and creativity and, you know, prayer manifestation. There seems to be this bias. And I’m just curious to hear your thoughts about that.
Well, you’re getting a series of wonderful and so useful questions. I mean, they’re trippy and fascinated, cool, just to sort of geek out about right. Think about but They’re also deeply relevant to practice. So I’ll take the way you said it. And I’ll say it a little carefully, which is, as we engage different experiences, such as moving from a kind of steady attention to a neutral object, such as the sensations of breathing, as we shift our experience from that, and maybe we do that for the first five or 10 minutes to just kind of stabilize a feeling of presence.
Then as we move from that, let’s say, to a more expansive sense of things as a whole. We’re going to be working parts of our brain more toward the back, that are involved with softening the boundaries between the self in the world. And let’s say also, we bring in very heartfelt feelings. Maybe we put a hand on our heart, maybe we bring to mind people we love or the feeling of being loved. And then we start really working a practice of, let’s say, devotion Sending loving-kindness and all directions. Let’s suppose we do that. Well, yeah, as our sense of experience changes, we are going to be shifting patterns of activation in the brain. In the larger context in which the brain is continually all parts of it are working together.
So the shifts are really once of emphasis and degrees of activation. But there’s still significant because if our sense of experience changes, if our state of consciousness changes, what’s going on in the brain, and therefore in the body altogether, must be changing as well. So that’s really, really true. And as we train as we practice, as we there’s a traditional saying, your mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Well, if you repeatedly rest upon worries and regrets and resentments, your brain will take a kind of stressed out shape and putting shape and air quotes here.
On the other hand, if you repeatedly rest your attention on a sense of Peace and a sense of calm at the core, even amidst holiday madness or just everyday life, right? As you repeatedly rest your awareness on a feeling of resilient well being, you know, you’re dealing with things around the edges, maybe you’re frazzled, but in the core of your being, I talked about it as the green zone, you’re in deep green, and the core of your being, that increasingly becomes your habit. It increasingly becomes your, your, your ground of being internally, and it gets strengthened by living there increasingly, now men and women, well, that’s a can of worms, for all kinds of reasons, gender itself, very fluid categories, you know, and then there’s always the question nature and nurture how much of these differences that we do see in adult men and women, often on average, or how much of those differences are based on just socialization and culture and how much of those were based on genuine in biological inherent differences.
There’s probably a lot of overlap between the bell curve of women in the bell curve of men with regard to any of these qualities that said, Yeah, I’ve definitely observed as you have as well, that use is really kind of tricky to talk about. But I think definitely men tend to be drawn toward practices that are, you know, sort of analytical and involved control. Women, my experience tends to be more drawn to practices that have a heartfelt quality to them. My feeling is, as all the great teachers have laid out, it’s an integrated path, whatever path you take, and the past tend to converge as we approach the top of the mountain and Lord, someone who is a mature, secular Buddhist has a lot of you know, 2030 years of practice gone on a lot of retreats dirt, but in a very secular kind of way, you know, that person is going to seem a lot like a Christian monastic who’s been living in silence for 20 years, when you really look closely at what they experience and how they are in the world. So as you know, it’s as you converge as you approach excellence in any domain gymnastics, being a stockbroker, or, you know, being an evolved practitioner, people start looking more and more similar as you kind of converges on the ultimate. And that’s probably true in their brains as well.
Oh, very interesting. Rick, I wanted to ask you about the difference between stress and anxiety, and why we’re hardwired for negativity. Hmm. And I think that so many people do experience this low-grade stress and anxiety that it becomes it’s their normal. Maybe they don’t even acknowledge that they have this. So how would just a regular person know and make those distinctions and then empower themselves to start changing?
Stress is a tricky word. It’s really important because stressors do not necessarily equal stress. And a lot of what we’re trying to do in life, if we’re engaged in the world is deal with challenges without getting stressed about it. And in dealing with challenges, like a 60 Hour Workweek, or raising young children or dealing with aging parents with health issues, or grappling with current American politics, whatever it might be, that were, you know, keeping a business upload, whatever the challenges, we’re going to be engaged with these challenges. The question is, can we maintain kind of an even keel as we deal with them.
So just because there are stressors does not necessarily mean a person is stressed and the key difference is the nature of the emotions the person is having at the time. You if you’re revved up and you feel happy, and enthusiastic and passionate and clear and strong and intense, you’re not stressed. Your body is kind of revved up but you’re not accumulating a lot of wear and tear. On the other hand, if you’re revved up while feeling driven and contracted and pressured and irritable and worried and exasperated, frustrated, then you’re going to be stressed. So a really important difference. Stress itself is not good for us. people to say, being stressed doesn’t matter. It’s I think about it. Well, if the way you think about your challenges, helps you be nonstressed, that’s useful. Okay.
But if you’re really stressed in the way I’m describing, and you’re just telling yourself “Oh, it’s fine, then I’m cranky and pressured and revved up and full with cortisol, my heart’s beating faster than it needs to. And my body’s inflamed because stress is inflammatory. But that’s all fine.” No, that’s terribly wrong. And you’re gradually accumulating a health debt that you’ll eventually have to pay with, especially as you get older, with greater morbidity, more health issues, and greater mortality, you know, a shorter lifespan.
So stress itself is not great. People should be clear about that. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be stressed some of the time, sometimes we’re going to be stressed, but try to keep it to a minimum. So stress, anxiety is stressful, because it’s a negative emotion. So there’s a, there’s a feeling of, you know, anxieties uncomfortable and other ways to be stressed that don’t involve anxiety. Like in a moment, someone’s very angry and aggressive and combative, maybe they don’t feel anxious in the moment, they’re still stressed. So, there are different forms of stress that may or may not involve anxiety.
But deep down anxiety predisposes us to stress. Because if we’re usually anxious about what might happen, and so for anxious about it, then if it does happen, but we’re more inclined to have a big reaction to it. The thing I would say in general, is that in terms of your kind of tail question, you know, what can we do about it? The way I think about this is what do we do in the moment? And then what do we do to prepare for the moment? What we do to prepare for the moment is the most important and that’s where regular practices like you teach, or another stage of meditation and contemplation, yoga, therapy, just reflection, or you know, kind of determine day after day accumulation of keys, inner strength, like resilience or, or sense of worth, or self-compassion. You know, the cultivation of these inner resources. Before the oatmeal hits the fan. That’s good. Because then when things happen when they when your partner gives you that look like heck with you, or, or you’re, you know, late and you’re stuck in traffic late for a meeting, you know when events actually happen, because you’ve trained you’ve been simple ways 10 20 minutes a day. So the level of the training that most people actually really do consistently. When you’ve prepared yourself over time, and you’ve cultivated inner strength of mindfulness and compassion and, and resilience and happiness, well, then when things happen, they don’t land so hard. Now, when things are happening, there are also things you can do. And I have kind of my quick first aid kit if you want to know it.
Number one, notice that you’re upset. That’s 50% of it right there. And when you notice you’re upset, see if you can get a little distance from it, be mindful of it, step back from it, rather than being completely sucked into the movie. Try to witness it from 20 rows back. All right, that right there is enormous. So notice strips that maybe Neva name it to yourself irritated, stunned, so angry, really hurt, wondering what to do. You’re just naming it you’re not getting caught up in it, you’re just noting it, you’re naming it. Research shows actually that that simple practice of noting calms down activity in the amygdala, the alarm bell of the brain and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, which as I said earlier, is sort of the seat of executive top down regulation, you know, so you kind of get a grip on things. Just write their name to yourself what you’re feeling and be with it a second. self-compassion, in a sense of support and warmth through yourself. Ouch, it hurts, right? Like, oh, the feeling you’d have for a friend. Oh, I wish you weren’t feeling that. You know, it’s part of life and Ouch, that hurts. We don’t you know, we wouldn’t want that. Yeah. hurts. And there’s a sense of caring for yourself. That’s self-compassionate.
Third thing, I think that’s really important, maybe especially, frankly, for women to generalize it, is to tune into a muscular sense of being on your own side of being for yourself, not against others, but that you matter to, and there’s a kind of muscular Hmm, you know, nope. Hmm. I’m going to figure this out, huh? This is not good. We’re going to do something about this. If only inside my own mind, you know, maybe all I’m going to do is let this go by because I know that person’s kind of a jerk and never going to change. But inside my mind, I’m making some decisions here or I’m developing some reflections or I’m reminding myself, maybe this person is not a jerk. You know, they just said that because they’re ignorant or they didn’t know better or it’s not a big deal, and I don’t need to be so upset about it next time, whatever.
But you’re taking action on your own behalf. muscular feeling, and then you make a plan. So for me, those are the four things recognition that something’s really bothering me. And mindful awareness of it. Second, warm-hearted support for yourself. Third, a kind of muscular, getting on your own side being for yourself. It’s shocking how many people do not have easy access to that experience that inner resource for themselves. So being on their own side, and then forth, start making a plan. Action binds anxiety if you know what you’re going to do. If only the next time this happens, then you know, it’ll help you feel a lot better.
That’s very, those are amazing tools, right? I mean, when you talk about if you were to see the universe’s this big brain, and the way that we’re living today, and you talk about some of these tools to kind of bring yourself out of that old default state because I think a lot of people just feel like they’re in a constant stress depressed state. And it’s something that they don’t have the resource or they don’t feel connected to getting out of because a lot of times people live in this isolated kind of way.
You know, now we have so much technology, we have a lot of people. And then, you know, today, the way we communicate is, you know, now ghosting is normal, you don’t have to deal with anybody. So now there’s these, you know, new ways of communication, these different ways of communication, different ways of living and lifestyle. So how do we, in essence, you know, develop this bigger brain, within our community to help create these positive pathways because that’s what I tend to see is that people feel really alone and isolated in their personal and spiritual path. And they don’t know how to kind of come out of that. Do you have thoughts about that? Just the way we’re set up.
Well first, with regard to people doing things online, there are ways to use online activities to actually feel closer to others. And so for example, I have several online programs that all have opportunities to chat with others about what’s happening for you in the online program. And they’re a different scale. Some of them are very quick bite-size things you can do in less than two minutes at a time. Others are more like a one-year personal transformation journey. And people can see more about them at my website or cancer net, but inside those and we have scholarships to four people inside those, there are plenty of opportunities for people to connect with others. So I think that’s one thing to do.
But beyond that, You’re in, I think a lot about our true nature at a lot of levels. And, biologically, our true nature is to live with 50 other people our entire life, you know hunter-gatherer band, that’s our true nature. And that’s how, over most of 300,000 years, our immediate human ancestors lived, as to how for another 2 million years before that, our tool manufacturing, hominid ancestors lived also in the small bands. And you just think about what life is like in a small man. You and I are looking at each other now through a screen, but at least we’re looking at each other. And in those bands, we’d be looking at each other and touching each other and interacting with each other and taking care of each other’s children and being with each other’s parents as they died. I mean, we would be doing that our entire lives. And that’s our true nature. To live in close contact with other humans, to rely upon them, and to share this journey and life with them. That’s our true nature. And so we can’t go back to the Stone Age.
But as much as we can, we could try to compensate for those tendencies of modern technical technological civilizations that pull us away from our own true nature. So for example, as you go through the day, making eye contact with people, strangers on the street, making sure that your smile is a genuine smile. A lot of people do a phony smile these days. It’s so weird. It’s as if they think other people are not looking like I’ll do a phony smile. Ready? It’s creepy. You know, the eyes don’t change.
There are a lot of people that don’t know how to smile. I feel like there’s a lot of seriousness and it’s almost like hard for people to break into that joyful, more fun and playful state. And that, to me seems like the antidote to stress and anxiety.
In a lot of ways, one of the fastest ways to get out of that stress bubble exactly is to move into positive emotion, including emotional connection with others. Exactly right. So, you know what I what I do, I try to take a few extra seconds to get a feeling for the other person. You know, the person, the hot dog vendor, the person making your coffee, the person driving the Uber, the person that is, you know, as a desk next to you in your work to actually get a feeling of them. And when we are getting a feeling of them, they will feel felt, which is a gift to both of us. So I think it’s useful to look for many little opportunities, brief ones, typically, as you go through your day, to experience more of a feeling of contact with other people, including in small ways. I think that’s really important. I think another thing is to regulate yourself
So you’re not harming others, and you’re holding them in your heart. Like, for example, here, you know, we don’t know each other well, we kind of just sort of metal A while ago, the relationship is what it is. But inside that, whatever you do, I’m going to keep you in my heart, I’m going to take you into account. And knowing that one morally, helps me not harm you so much, if at all, but to, it’s good for me. So when other way we can feel connected to others, in ways that are self-nurturing, as well as other benefits is to carry other people with us in our feeling. You know, that’s a great way to feel connected, and no one can stop you from doing that.
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you so much, Rick. I really appreciate your time!
Oh, totally. My pleasure. And if I could just add one little thing it’s actually a quotation. It’s a parable. Probably Actually, the proverb says, 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. And that’s our opportunity every day to look for the little things.
The little moments of calming the little moments of feeling strong, the little moments of letting go of some needless aspiration or, or worry, the little moments of insight into our own minds, the little moments of love for other people to look for those little moments, those little drops, and slow down for a breath or two or three, just to marinate in that experience, which will help to hardwire the emotional residues of that experience into your own nervous system. scraggly over time. lifting your mood, lift Your inner strength and lifting your own level of consciousness over time.
That’s a simple practice grounded in science that people can do a few minutes a day. breath here, three breaths there half a dozen times a day, really taking the good and that will help you in the moment. It’ll change your day because you’ll be looking for the good that you can take in, including the sense of your own natural goodness, your own fundamental value and worth as a being. You’ll be looking for times you can take that in, and it’ll change your life because you will gradually be growing a good inside yourself, for your sake as well as for other beings.
That’s beautiful reg, I mean, from what I hear, and that parable to it sounds like virtue is a quality to develop that helps you also develop resilience and compassion, and especially even resilience to stress and this quality of inner critic. 2
Exactly right. And one of the things we take in is happiness, gratitude, reassurance, delight, amazement, feeling of beauty, listening to music. Good. Well, and the happiness that we experience with others like I am with you.