Posts tagged with ‘neuroscience’

01 jan

Empty the Cup

RickHansonAre you full to the brim?
The Practice:
Empty the cup.
Why?

Once upon a time, a scholar came to visit a saint. After the scholar had been orating and propounding for a while, the saint proposed some tea. She slowly filled the scholar’s cup: gradually the tea rose to the very brim and began spilling over onto the table, yet she kept pouring and pouring. The scholar burst out: “Stop! You can’t add anything to something that’s already full!” The saint set down the teapot and replied, “Exactly.”

Whether it’s the blankness of a canvas to an artist, the silence between the notes in music, bare dirt for a new garden, the not-knowing openness of a scientist exploring new hypotheses, an unused shelf in a closet or cupboard, or some open time in your schedule, you need space to act effectively, dance with your partners, and have room around your emotional reactions.

Yet most of us, me included, tend to stuff as much as possible into whatever room is available – room in closets, schedules, budgets, relationships, and even the mind itself. Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on January 1st, 2012 in General, Health, Relationships, Things We Love | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , ,

23 dec

Give Over to Good

RickHansonWhat is living you?
The Practice:
Give over to good.
Why?

In every moment, you and I and everyone and everything else – from quantum foam to fleeting thoughts, intimate relationships, rainforest ecosystems, and the stars themselves – are each a kind of standing wave, like the ever-changing though persistent pattern of water rising above a boulder in a river.

We are the result of multiple causes flowing through us. As Buckminster Fuller famously said, “I seem to be a verb.”

This fact is amazing, but it’s corroborated by both modern physics and deep ecology. We can get silly-cosmic about it (done this myself – not only as a college sophomore!), but the implications are very down to earth.

As unique standing waves, you and I are constructed each moment by the currents – the forces and factors, both internal and external – flowing through us. We have no choice about being lived by these currents, continually given over to them.

But we can choose to give ourselves over to the good ones. Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on December 23rd, 2011 in General, Health, Relationships, Things We Love | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 jul

Keep Hope not Fear Alive

RickHansonThis recent series of posts has used the example of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive” as an illustration of a larger point: humans evolved to be fearful — a major feature of the brain’s negativity bias that helped our ancestors pass on their genes. Consequently, as much research has shown, we’re usually much more affected by negative — by which I mean painful — experiences than by positive ones.

Besides the personal impacts of this bias in the brain, it also makes people, and nations, vulnerable to being manipulated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” Colbert is mocking those who play on fear, since we surely don’t need more efforts to keep fear alive.

Your Brain on Negative
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, 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.

Yet as my last post explored, 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. Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on July 14th, 2011 in General, Relationships, Things We Love | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , ,

23 jun

Balancing Joining and Separating

There is a natural balance within us all between the desire for joining and the desire for separation, between the desire for closeness and the desire for distance. These two great themes – joining and separation – are central to human life. Almost everyone wants both of them, to varying degrees.

People tend to focus a lot on the joining theme, both because relationships are about – uh – joining, and because spiritual practice of any kind is fundamentally about coming into relationship with things.

Into relationship with our own suffering and that of others, and into relationship with the real causes of that suffering. Into relationship with the endlessly changing and thus impermanent nature of existence and experience. Into mindful relationship with the body, with the sense of experience being pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, with all the thoughts and feelings etc, in the mind, and with the qualities and aims of consciousness itself. And – it’s meaningful to you – into relationship with a transcendental Something: God, Buddhanature, the Infinite, unbounded Awareness . . . by whatever name.

But as important as relationship is, it is also important to bow to the other great theme, separation.

The Benefits of Separation

First, a healthy capacity for separation – or, using other words, for differentiation, individuation, autonomy, and self-expression – is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for healthy joining.

Second, autonomy is necessary for spiritual practice. Let’s consider these examples from Buddhism:

  • One is always to “see for yourself,” and make your own decisions about what makes sense to you in the teachings of the Buddha.
  • It is fundamentally up to oneself, and no one else, to engage the path of practice. No one can make us do it; we have to choose it ourselves. While Buddhism does not speak against God, it does not assert that God shapes our lives and that God’s grace is at work in our transformation.
  • We are each individually responsible for the effects of our actions – for our own karmas. Buddhism is a very gentle religion/philosophy/whatever-it-is, but it is also bluntly tough-minded.

Much as separation supports joining, experiences of healthy connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of healthy self structures, ego functions, and sense of worth and confidence. By taking refuge in our feelings of connection – both present in our relationships of the moment as well as internalized from our history of relationships – we are able to move out, from a secure base, to explore and cope with the world as an individual.

For instance, in Buddhism, one of what are called the Three Jewels of practice is the Refuge of Sangha – which means the community of fellow practitioners.

Mutual Support

In other words: individuality and relationship, autonomy and intimacy, separation and joining support each other. They are often seen at odds with each other, but this is so not the case!

For example, by knowing that you are entitled to your own view of reality, that you can assert yourself appropriately, that you can disengage when you need to, that you can honor your temperament if you happen to be an introvert who is a little drained by contact and fed by solitude – then you can be more comfortable and willing to enter into the depths of joining and intimacy available in relationships, plus receive the supplies anyone needs for healthy individuation, including the attention and caring and esteem of others.

Similarly, by acknowledging, and normalizing, and respecting the need for separation and distance in others – even if it is sometimes not your preference – that helps create a zone of safety which often fosters a greater willingness to hang out for a while with closeness.

In fact, people often step back in relationships – like agreeing, perhaps tacitly, to just not talk about certain contentious topics – in order to stay close. In developmental psychology, the term is “distance in the service of attachment.”

Working out Different Desires for Closeness

Of course, in important relationships there is rarely a perfect symmetry of desires for joining and separation. That just means that it is important to be alert to the other person’s hot buttons: for many people, if they feel their autonomy is being challenged, then that pops to the top of the stack as the key issue on the table for them . . . while for many other people, the same is true regarding perceived threats to joining. By taking into account the “imperative” of the other person, you can skillfully prevent unnecessary conflicts; by explaining your own imperatives in relationships, you can help the other person understand you better.

Additionally, the natural differences between people in the priorities they give to joining compared to separation, and the differences in the ways in which they pursue those aims, are simply another thing – albeit an important one – to negotiate in relationships.

Being able to accept and own your personal joining/separation “thermostat setting” will help you to talk about it more straightforwardly and effectively with others. And you will be as able as possible to accept and work nimbly with that set point in others.

Natural Cautions about Closeness

Most psychological wounds or traumas occur in the context of relationships, including in early childhood. Further, in our evolutionary history, there were a lot of risks in encounters with people who were “not-my-tribe.” So it is natural to be a little leery of interacting at first, especially with relative strangers.

To enter into connections today with other flesh-and-blood people, and with your internal history and sense of relationships, it is skillful to be sensitive and caring toward your own alarm bells and nervousness and resistance.

It is natural to bump into those “defenses,” often subtly. It is inevitable if you are opening up, becoming more available for relationship, more accessible, more engaged, more heartfelt, more loving.

Even as you read those words, you might be aware of both the longing for those qualities in your relationships and a certain . . . squeamishness perhaps? reluctance? anxiety? repulsion??! . . . . coming up as well.

It is perfectly natural. The closer we get, often the more the impulse to distance arises – just like the more distance we get, often the more the impulse to move closer arises.

As you go through life, first and foremost, just try to bring mindfulness to these states of mind, both the longing for closeness and the desire for distance. They are a wonderful object of mindfulness and even investigation.

In accord with true mindfulness, try to maintain an accepting interest, even a kind of soft friendliness, toward the closeness and toward the distancing.

And really, if the instinct toward stepping back feels wise, or is simply too strong to push through, then please by all means follow it, and step back.

* * *

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.

He writes a weekly newsletter – Just One Thing – that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.

If you felt moved, inspired, touched, helped, annoyed, or anything after reading this, please let us know. Our wonderful bloggers really do appreciate your comments and feedback. It’s super easy and takes a minute. Click on comments below.

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on June 23rd, 2011 in General, Relationships, Things We Love | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

26 may

The Wolf of Hate

The Wolf of Hate I heard a story once about a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: “In my heart, there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”

This story always gives me a little shiver. It’s both humbling and hopeful. First, the wolf of love is very popular, but who among us does not also harbor a wolf of hate? We can hear its snarling both far away in distant wars and close to home in our own anger and aggression, even toward people we love. Second, the story suggests that we each have the ability—grounded in daily actions—to encourage and strengthen empathy, compassion, and kindness while also restraining and reducing ill will, disdain, and aggression.

In my previous post, I explored some of the basis, in the brain, of romance and love. In this one, let’s consider the dark side of bonding: how attachment to “us” both fuels and has been nurtured by fearful aggression toward “them.” Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on May 26th, 2011 in Health, Relationships, Spirituality | 1 comment Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 may

The Evolution of Love

The Evolution of Love How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet?

Humans are the most sociable species on earth – for better and for worse.

On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures, and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.

In other words, to paraphrase a Native American teaching, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate live in the heart of every person.

Many factors shape each of these two wolves, including biological evolution, culture, economics, and personal history. Here, I’d like to comment on key elements of the neural substrate of bonding and love; Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on May 19th, 2011 in Family, General, Health, Relationships | 1 comment Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 may

Put No One Out of Your Heart

RickHansonWhat is an open heart?
The Practice
Put no one out of your heart.
Why?

We all know people who are, ah, . . . challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice but flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn’t like you, a partner who won’t keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. Right now I’m thinking of a neighbor who refused to pay his share of a fence between us.

As Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “Hell is other people.”

Sure, that’s overstated. But still, most of a person’s hurts, disappointments, and irritations typically arise in reactions to other people.

Ironically, in order for good relationships to be so nurturing to us as human beings – who have evolved to be the most intimately relational animals on the planet – you must be so linked to others that some of them can really rattle you!

So what can you do?

Let’s suppose you’ve tried to make things better – such as taking the high road yourself and perhaps also trying to talk things out, pin down reasonable agreements, set boundaries, etc. – but the results have been partial or nonexistent.

At this point, it’s natural to close off to the other person, often accompanied by feelings of apprehension, resentment, or disdain. While the brain definitely evolved to care about “us,” it also evolved to separate from, fear, exploit, and attack “them” – and those ancient, neural mechanisms can quickly grab hold of you.

But what are the results? Closing off doesn’t feel good. Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on May 12th, 2011 in Family, General, Relationships, Things We Love | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , ,

29 jul

5000 Synapses in the Width of a Hair

RickHansonHow much change in the brain makes a difference in the mind?

That’s the issue raised by a very interesting comment regarding my previous blog, “The Brain in a Bucket.”

So I’ve taken the liberty of posting the comment here (hoping that’s OK in blog etiquette; still learning as I go), and then responding. Here it is:

I was pondering your statement that long term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.

While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. Read more »

Posted by Dr. Rick Hanson on July 29th, 2010 in General, Health | No comments Read related posts in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,