Learn How to Stress-Proof Your Brain with Dr. Rick Hanson
Raw Food Magazine sat down with Best-Selling Author of Hardwiring Happiness and PhD in Neuropsychology to learn just how you can train your brain to feel contentment, calm and happiness more of the time.
Grove: Good morning. This is Sara Grove with Raw Food Magazine, and I am here this morning with Dr. Rick Hanson, who is a neuropsychologist and the author of the new best-selling book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, & Confidence. Rick is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and an affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He has been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and has taught in meditation centers worldwide.
We’re so excited to have Rick onboard today. He is an authority on self-directed neuroplasticity, which I’m sure he’ll explain for us, and his work has been featured in numerous places, including BBC, NPR, CBC. I could go on and on. We are so glad to have you here today. Welcome, Rick.
Hanson: Thank you, Sara. It’s a pleasure. Some of those words are mouthfuls, aren’t they? Neuroplasticity. That’s a mouthful. I’m hoping we can bring it down to earth and turn it into practical methods.
Grove: I would love to do that. You’re here to talk to us today about some of the practical ways that we can de-stress our lives by stress-proofing our brains. So we’re going to take a look at some of the reasons why we’re so stressed and how the way our brains evolved actually works against us sometimes, and take a look at mindfulness as the fundamental building block for rewiring your brain. I’d love to talk about some of our most common challenges and excuses we have for why we don’t meditate and why we don’t take time to nurture this side of our lives. Then Dr. Hanson is going to guide us through a short meditation.
So yes, maybe first of all you could explain to us what you do exactly and what is self-directed neuroplasticity?
Hanson: Sure. The basic idea is that the brain and the nervous system, all together, continually changes based on our experiences. It’s the organ that learns. In other words, whether it’s a child learning to walk instead of crawl or an adult learning how to use the latest version of Facebook, God help us, or just remembering what you had for breakfast, or especially emotional learning – in other words, learning how to be happier, learning how to feel more confident or peaceful or stronger, more resilient. All that involves changing the brain, for better or worse.
It’s also true that the brain, in terms of the worse side, is changed by chronic irritation or anxious worry or beating ourselves up, self-criticism, or grumbling in our mind about other people. The brain is constantly changed, for better or worse. What I’m interested in, and I’m sure you and your listeners are too, is how to change the brain for the better. So that’s where the new science about the brain is really helpful, and I’m sure we’ll get real practical real fast, using that science to guide our brain to a better place. That’s what that fancy phrase, “self-directed neuroplasticity,” means. Taking charge of your own brain, using your mind to change your brain to change your own mind for the better.
Grove: That’s very interesting. I’m excited to talk to you about this. But you earned your Ph.D. in clinical psychology. About when did you develop such a fascination with the brain specifically?
Hanson: Honestly, in my 20s. Because even though my 20s was awhile ago – it was in the ’70s – there wasn’t that much known about the brain, but it was clear to me that other than some transcendental X factor, God, spirit, the ground, the mystery, whatever – and I personally think there is an X factor – but that said, other than that X factor, bottom line, the brain is the final common pathway of all the causes streaming through us to make this moment of consciousness.
So if we could get more control over what the brain is doing – in a good sense, control, more influence over it – then we wouldn’t be so hijacked by our emotional reactions to things, and we wouldn’t be so easily manipulated, frankly, by the forces of fear or greed from one side to the other.
As we’ll get into, I’m sure, because by learning more about your own brain, you can take charge of the Stone Age brain now in the 21st century. We have a brain that’s very well-designed to help our animal ancestors survive under very brutal, harsh conditions, but there’s certain aspects of the brain that worked great back in the Stone Age that are lousy for quality of life today or long-term health or getting along with the other seven billion people on the planet.
Grove: Absolutely. I’d love if you could talk a little bit more about that, because that was one of my favorite – the first thing that really hit me from your book Buddhist Brain, as I remember reading about the idea that our brain actually, some of our instincts and things that have developed for our survival in the past actually work against us. Learning about that helped me be a little bit more graceful with myself, so instead of beating myself up over “Man, if only I had more willpower, if only I had more self-restraint,” you’re fighting your own instincts here. What are some ways or an example of a way that our brains actually might work against us?
Hanson: Sure. The brain has what’s called a negativity bias. What I mean by that, or what people mean when they use that phrase, in my shorthand, it means it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good. The reason is that as our ancestors evolved, they had to get carrots and avoid sticks. Here’s the difference, though: if you don’t get a carrot today, you don’t get food today or you don’t get a chance to – a mating opportunity, as they put it – if you don’t get that chance today, you’ll probably have a chance tomorrow.
But if you fail to avoid a stick today, if you fail to avoid a predator today, or a natural hazard, or some kind of lethal aggression inside your primate band or between primate bands, if you fail to avoid that stick, whap! no more carrots forever.
Grove: Game over.
Hanson: Sticks are different in their urgency and impact. So today, the negativity bias shows up in lots of very practical, down-to-earth ways. For example, studies show that to be in a long-term relationship with anybody, especially an intimate relationship, you need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions, and ideally better than that. In effect, one negative interaction neutralizes five positive ones.
This is a really cautionary finding, isn’t it? When you think back on the last two hours or two weeks in your primary relationships. Let’s say 10 things happen in a day with someone you work with, live with, sleep with, grew up with, what have you, a significant relationship, 10 things happen in the day; let’s say five are mildly pleasant, four are neutral, and one was mildly negative. Which one are you going to be thinking about as you fall asleep? It’s the negative one.
Or other examples, we learn faster from pain than from pleasure. Positive experiences have very standard memory systems, which means that they have to be held in awareness, usually, long enough for them to transfer from short-term buffers to long-term storage. Now, “long enough” depends on the person, but it’s at least usually five, ten, twenty seconds in a row. Otherwise, they don’t make any difference in the brain.
But how often do we actually do that? How often do we actually stay with an everyday, ordinary positive experience? The deliciousness of coffee or the warm feeling in our heart when someone smiles at us or you look out the window and there’s a flower somewhere, or “ain’t dead yet,” whatever. How often do we savor it for ten, twenty, thirty seconds in a row? We don’t usually do that. This means that positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve, while negative ones get caught every time. Because they have dedicated memory systems that convert them quickly to neural structure. Once burned, twice shy, right? Never forget.
That creates an asymmetry, a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes the brain really good at learning from the bad, but really bad at learning from the good, even though good experiences are the primary source of the inner strengths, like positive mood, feeling loved, resilience, confidence, and so forth. Positive experiences are the primary source of those inner strengths we all need to make our way down the long road of life. Unfortunately, the brain has kind of a bottleneck in which it doesn’t absorb positive experiences well.
That’s what my book Hardwiring Happiness is really about. It’s about how to pop open that bottleneck so you can get the good stuff inside your brain, and therefore inside your being and your life.
Grove: That’s beautiful. There is the hope; there is the silver lining. So you’re saying that we have the power to focus our attention and to incorporate various practices that will actually change the way our brain interprets information, or at least how we interpret our day-to-day lives.
Hanson: Yeah. In other words, you can make your brain “stickier,” as it were, for the positive, and slipperier for the negative. You’re exactly right, when you emphasize attention and mindfulness. Because there’s a saying in neuroscience, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, repeated patterns of neural activity, based on repeated patterns of mental activity, leave lasting changes in neural structure. That’s the general idea.
But the special point is that while neurons that fire together wire together do so throughout the nervous system, that process is turbo charged for what you’re paying attention to. In effect, attention is like a spotlight and a vacuum cleaner. It illuminates what it rests upon, and then it sucks it into your brain. But most people do not have very good control over that spotlight. It gets stuck on negative preoccupations, for example, and it’s hard to keep it on things that would be useful or good for us and other people.
Plus, we have kind of an ADD culture where we’re bombarded with stimulation and we get used to switching that spotlight of attention quickly from one thing to another. It’s interesting; look at a movie made in the ’70s or the ’80s, maybe even an action film, and then compare that to a movie just made in the last year. You’ll see that the movie made in the ’80s has many longer scenes. The scenes are longer, whereas in modern films and TV shows, let alone commercials, the camera will cut.
Grove: Very rapidly.
Hanson: Every two or three seconds, it shifts to a new scene to recreate something that will draw attention. Because that’s what we’re used to. Long story short, getting more control over that spotlight, being able to be in charge of where our attention flows rather than forces outside us grabbing that spotlight left and right, up and down, that’s the basis for changing your brain for the better. And that’s where things like mindfulness training of various kinds and various practices come in, because if you do mindfulness training, then you’re more able to affect what flows into your brain and therefore into your whole being.
Grove: Very simply put, would you say that mindfulness or the practice of training yourself in mindfulness is just practicing ways of focusing your attention?
Hanson: Yeah, technically mindfulness is nothing but sustained present moment awareness, and you could apply it to anything. People have said you can apply it to robbing a bank, but you can also apply it to the flow of your own consciousness. But in either case, you’re learning how to sustain attention. That’s where things like meditation come in as a good mindfulness training, or just bringing sustained attention to everyday activities like washing the dishes or doing Pilates or taking the dog for a walk. It’s all good because it’s going to train your attention.
Grove: And you have practiced meditation for a long time now. When was your first introduction to meditation and to practicing mindfulness?
Hanson: Thanks. I was a college senior at UCLA. I had 12 units left; spring of 1974, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I don’t know – I wonder sometimes if it was grace – I was moved to take 12 units on Eastern philosophy and religion. So I read a bunch of books and did practices and wrote a huge paper and so forth. But that was my introduction, and I was pretty naïve. I thought all I had to do is sit on a hill with my long hair and my gold-rimmed glasses and my awakening within me. If not awakening, at least young women who would think it would be very cool. But none of that, neither the awakening nor the young women showed up, but whatever. But I did learn how to settle down and become more peaceful inside and so forth.
Then in the last I’d say 20 years, I’ve gotten very trained in and experienced with Buddhist contemplative practices and perspectives, and at this point now I have a regular meditation group and I teach meditation and related things. So that’s my own background with it.
I want to stress that there are many traditions. Whatever interests you, including simply you could say secular traditions where you simply pick something like the sensations of breathing and just pay attention to that, breath after breath after breath. Whatever works for you. But as Father Thomas Keating, who’s a Christian and really the main communicator about what’s called centering prayer, which is a very neat contemplative practice – check it out on YouTube; he’s the real deal. Anyway, he said in a talk I heard, he said “A life without a contemplative perspective is a sure prescription for disaster.” I thought that was pretty good.
Grove: I love that. Absolutely. Do you have a daily practice, or what’s your daily routine?
Hanson: Yeah, definitely. I have a personal vow, if you will, to meditate at least one minute per day, and hopefully more. Sometimes it’s the last few minutes before I go to sleep. But that made a big change –
Grove: Like, “Oh wait, I haven’t done my minute.”
Hanson: Yeah, exactly. You’ve got to honor it. One thing you get about the brain is that it’s the little things that add up over time to make the most difference, usually. Lots of little good things take us to a good place; lots of little bad things take us to a bad place. So it’s the minutes. They have a saying in Tibet, “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.” We may not have time to spend 45 minutes in formal practice. I often don’t feel like I do, even though I’m very committed to this. But who does not have a single minute to gather themselves, get on their own side, carve out that special time for themselves amidst a life that’s full of giving to others, I’m sure, and come into your body, come into the moment, come home to your own true self. Who doesn’t have at least a minute to do that every day?
One thing I’ve learned also, both about the brain and having now been a therapist for a long time, it’s that you’ve got to earn it. In other words, if you want your mind to shift to a better place, you’ve got to do the work. On the other hand, the work is a few minutes here and a few minutes there most of the time, and it’s very, very doable.
For example, to “hardwire” happiness into your brain through taking in the good, those practices that I talk about just take usually a dozen or two dozen seconds at a time, a handful of times a day. In other words, roughly less than five minutes a day. Yet that dozen seconds here and there adding up let’s say to five minutes or so a day make a real difference for people after a few days, and certainly have a few weeks or months or years.
Grove: Absolutely. What’s an example of maybe one of your favorite or one of your go-to practices, where you feel a little bit frayed, a little bit stressed, and you’re like “I need to bring in my attention, focus my attention”?
Hanson: That’s a great question. I think the way I’d put it is I divide it into two ways. One is how to reduce the negative; the other is how to grow the positive. In effect, how to pull the weeds and how to plant the flowers. You’ve got to do both. Let’s say you’re frazzled, you’re just stressed, you’re busy, you’re racing around, or let’s say something’s bothering you. Maybe someone was not nice to you or didn’t call you back or you go out, you meet someone new, it’s nice, and then three days have gone by and they haven’t called you, and you’re thinking, “Uh oh, did I have lettuce in my teeth the whole time?” Or you have some weird interaction with your parent or money’s tough. Fill in the blank. You’re bothered by something.
In that case, two things for me are first aid. They’re like urgent care. One is to have compassion for myself. There’s a lot of research about the power of self-compassion. It’s not self-pity; you’re not wallowing, etc., etc., although hey, self-pity is not so bad either, frankly. It’s just you wish that you didn’t suffer. That’s the essence of compassion. Usually with a warmth and a sympathetic concern, applied to yourself instead of to other beings. But it’s perfectly legitimate, and the Buddha, among others, stressed that we should care about ourselves and wish ourselves well. It’s out of care for ourselves that we do the work. A few seconds here and a few minutes there that’ll take our mind and therefore our brain and therefore our life to a better place. So self-compassion.
Then second, I try to dial down the stress-o-meter. When the needle is, on the 0 to 10 red zone scale, as it were, when my needle is a 3, let alone a 7, I try to bring it back down, try to calm the body. Take some exhalations, look out a window, imagine you’re looking at your situation from a 10,000 foot birds-eye perspective, or run some water over your hands or give yourself some physical pleasure. Like eat something good, something raw and delicious. All these are mechanisms designed by Mother Nature to pull us out of the red zone, because she doesn’t want us to spend much time there, even though unfortunately much of modern life kind of traps us in the red zone with chronic mild to moderate stress.
Then on the plus side, on the growing flowers side, distinct from the pulling weeds that I just spoke to, I think taking the good half a dozen times a day, hardwire that happiness into your brain. In other words, either when you’re already having a positive experience or by creating one, enrich it.
That’s the second step of taking in the good. The first step is have it; the second step is enrich it. Stay with it. Savor it. Let yourself have it. Be sweet to yourself. Let it in. There’s an intimacy with your own body about this. Let it become felt in your body. Focus on the emotions of it. Protect it from distractions for 10 or 20 seconds in a row. That’s all it is. But you’ve got to do the work for the 10 or 20 seconds in a row.
Third step, absorb it. Intend and sense that it’s sinking into you. That’ll help sensitize your memory system so that it’ll turn it into structure more efficiently.
And then if you want, if you’re really centered in the positive, you might also be aware of it moving into some negative material. That’s the optional fourth step, the link step of taking the good where you hold both positive and negative in mind and you get the positive to go into the negative. You want the positive, to use a word here, to dominate, in effect, in a good sense, the negative, rather than having the negative dominate the positive.
To sum up, those four steps, have, enrich, absorb, and then optionally link, give you the acronym HEAL, or heal. Those are the four steps in taking the good. I think if people do that routinely, within a few days if not a few weeks, they will build up more resources inside so that they’ll have fewer negative moments. Flowers crowd out weeds.
Grove: Is this something, these type of practices or in your research among contemplative people, is this something that you can see in the brain?
Hanson: That’s a very interesting question. Yeah, you really can see lasting changes in the brain based on positive mental practices. There is very little research so far on many important parts of positive psychology, like gratitude or even self-compassion, although it’s beginning to occur. The research is just beginning now about how to accelerate positive emotional learning. There’s a lot of research on negative emotional learning, the impact of trauma or depression or anxiety on the brain for different people at different ages and different situations, but it’s just beginning to be investigated how positive experiences change your brain for the better.
But the early research is very powerful. For example, repeated positive experiences shift activity to the left prefrontal cortex, the area just behind the forehead. This is true for right-handed people and roughly half of all left-handed people. It’s reversed for roughly the other half of left-handed people. But the point is that for most people, the left prefrontal cortex is very involved in positive emotion, and also it puts the breaks on negative emotion. So if you have more activity in your left prefrontal cortex, you’re going to be a happier person. That’s one.
Another finding is that positive emotions dial down activity in the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, which is very involved in fear and anger. So if you get less activity there, you then become less fearful and angry and happier as well. Those are just two findings, but those are pretty solid findings.
Also, positive emotions affect the brain by dialing down stress hormones, and stress hormones like cortisol have a really bad effect on the brain. They actually in fact gradually kill neurons in parts of the brain that calm us down and help us see the big picture, which creates a vicious cycle, unfortunately. Stress today weakens the brain’s capacity to protect us from stress, which makes us more vulnerable to stress tomorrow, which makes us really affected by stress the day after.
Grove: Let’s stay on that a little bit, about the stress and about the fighting negative emotion. After these practices and all of this research, would you consider yourself stress-proof?
Hanson: That’s a great question. I’ll give you a metaphor that works for me. Imagine a sailboat with a keel. You know that thing that sticks down in the water under the sailboat? I once learned how to sail – I put the word “learn” in quotes – and I capsized my sailboat because I had no keel, and I ended up floating around in the ocean. Very cold, alarming experience. Potentially a dangerous one. So sailboats really benefit from having a keel.
I think as we do practices, over time, synapse by synapse, minute by minute, that make the years, year by year, we deepen our personal keel on the water. You can look out on the world and you can see people who have done a tremendous amount of inner practice in one tradition or another – I think the Dalai Lama comes easily to mind – and you can see that they can deal with very, very tough conditions without losing their balance. They might get pushed to one side or another, but they don’t get knocked over, and they also recover much more quickly.
I think it’s fair to say that that is true about me. Not to praise myself, just factually. It’d be like someone who’s done an athletic training for a long time, you’d expect them to be pretty fit. Or yoga, someone who’s done a lot of yoga for many years, you’d expect them to have results. In the same way, they earned it.
Grove: An experienced endurance athlete can push themselves harder and recover more quickly.
Hanson: Yeah, exactly right. I think that’s really true here. I think that’s an honest thing. I can get pushed, things can happen, and it doesn’t mean you don’t feel things. To use the Dalai Lama again as an example, when refugees tell him their story coming out of Tibet, which is now controlled by the Chinese government, which I distinguish from the Chinese people, of course, the Dalai Lama will weep when he hears about it. Or there are cases where people would describe their life growing up in poverty, let’s say here in America, and he’d publicly weep. But he recovers from it fairly quickly.
It’s normal to feel things; the question is, to quote the Buddha if I may, “do they invade the mind and remain?” That’s the key distinction. It’s normal to enjoy pleasant experiences, it’s normal to not enjoy unpleasant experiences, but with practice and training, you can prevent those from invading your mind and remaining, and instead grow flowers there in the garden of your mind.
Grove: Think back and maybe you could share a story with us, the last time you remember feeling really pushed, really stressed, and had to dig deep within? What stresses you out more than anything?
Hanson: Well, I deal with a lot of daily things that I practice with around, for example, email and tasks. Right now I’m dealing with a lot of tasks, and they are demands. They’re demands upon me that I have created by putting myself in a situation with a new book and teaching a lot and stuff like that. They’re what we call first world problems. They’re not the serious problems that many, many people face. But it’s easy to get frazzled around them.
So I am continually just staying centered in my green zone, remembering that these are not earthshaking events, remembering that things are actually going quite well for me. Drawing upon that felt sense inside of people who love me, who are on my team, as it were, wish me well, and care about me. These are ways to stay green. I do that.
In terms of something really big, I’ll tell you a funny one. I just gave a talk at the Buddhist Geeks Annual Conference, and Buddhist Geeks, if you’re into that stuff, is great. I wanted to do a shout-out for them. As it turned out, I was their keynoter, opening up the conference, 275 people in the room, probably close to 1,000 watching online. Fairly high stakes. Cameras, the whole deal. And the slide set didn’t work. I had, for the very first time in my entire life, I can say, I had not sent them the right slide set. Also, the remote control was not working, the technical side wasn’t working. And here I am, a public speaker, so used to working off my PowerPoint slides, especially for this more technical audience. And it just blew up. “Ahh! What do I do now?”
Grove: Set up to be just the moment of panic, that pit in your stomach.
Hanson: Yeah, and I can honestly say, in front of 275 people, that I stayed totally chill about it and managed it, and I was very glad – as they say, to use the metaphor here, it’s how you practice off the field that really sets you up for how you act on the field. I can genuinely say that I’m very grateful, from my own background and practice, when the slides just blew up in my face, that I was able to just keep on going. It turned out okay.
And then relationship things. I had an upset with my wife a couple months ago where I had been out of town, I came back, she was telling me about a situation, and it was more or less the same situation she had described before about other people that she knows and loves. I just didn’t have the patience to stay in empathy mode, so I moved into fix it/problem-solving mode. You know how well that went, right? You can imagine.
Grove: Not very well. (laughs)
Hanson: Exactly, exactly. So I definitely got some serious pushback there, and I had to kind of take a breath, absorb that, and get momentarily pink in the red zone terms. But fairly quickly, again, just put it in a bigger perspective, realized we’re okay, admit fault fast – that for me is really important – admit fault and move on. Don’t be a doormat, but take maximum reasonable responsibility for the legitimate part, the valid parts of the other person’s grievance. Cop to it fast and correct immediately. That’s the fastest way to get them off your back, right? (laughs) But it’s also the way to be benevolent and caring, too.
Grove: I think that so much of stress has to do – or some of the most painful stress, because we have stress about work, stress about money, but some of the most emotional, painful stress comes with our intimate relationships, our significant other, our kids. I know we have so many readers that maybe they come home from work and they want just this peaceful environment, and their kids are fighting and the house is a mess, and it just creates that reaction of stress and anger.
So I love some of the techniques you’ve talked about in your previous books about returning to the breath, but also you talk about some interesting ways that you can use your imagination to help heal yourself and separate yourself in a heated moment or in an argument. Could you give me an example of one way you can use your creative part of your mind to help bring peace to a situation?
Hanson: I think it’s a very interesting question, Sara. First, to make that distinction between off the field and on the field, in the moment, when the oatmeal starts to fly and you’re trying to get that let’s say struggling toddler into a car seat – one of the more stressful things known to humankind – or yet again, your partner has frankly dropped the ball in terms of your partner’s share of the housework or childcare, or your partner refers to caring for kids as “babysitting.” Rrrr!
In the moment, the best you can do is ride out the storm and try to move out of the red zone into the green zone as soon as you can. You’re in the moment. But it’s what you do off the field that really affects whether you can stay calm and strong. It doesn’t mean being weak. It’s calm and strong and fundamentally happy, even when you’re dealing with challenges.
That’s where imagination really comes in, off the field. And that’s where, for example, the taking in the good practice really comes in, where you just stay with that positive experience, you keep it going in what I call the simulator. I suspect that’s what you’re referring to here. The theater of the mind, where we can replay the past or imagine a future, or just daydream, as it were. If you go into the theater of your mind and you keep this positive experience going off the field, you’re going to weave it into yourself.
Now, in the moment, I think one way to use imagination is to, as I said, pop up to that birds-eye view and look at the situation more impersonally. See it as part of a larger picture in which, for one, lots of worse things are happening to many other people. Put it in perspective. Also recognize that this is a transient event. It’s impermanent. It’s not going to last. It’s going to change. You’ve had previous upsets like this; they turned out okay afterward. Children do grow up, they do start expressing gratitude to their parents, believe it or not, at some point. Things do work out eventually.
So you can imagine things in this larger frame and therefore, as you put it, be more creative about them, which means freer. Rather than being bound to the stimulus and unfree, the stimulus that’s invaded your mind and now remains there, rather than being unfree, you liberate yourself by moving into the creative place where you can imagine different possibilities, you can look at the situation from different perspectives rather than being trapped in a stimulus response, Pavlov’s dog kind of scenario.
Grove: Talking about this practice off the field, you say in Buddhist Brain, we’re talking about mindfulness and having good control over your attention. You say that the best way to do this, the best practice is through meditation.
Hanson: Close. I think meditation is a powerful way to train attention. There are other ways. As I said, being very aware while washing dishes, let’s say, of just the dishes – as they say in Zen, “What is Zen? Chop wood, carry water.” In other words, it’s to be fully present. “After eating, wash your bowl.” These Zen sayings. It’s about being very present in the moment. You can use anything, honestly, as a basis. Eating. Eating is phenomenal. Preparing or eating food, speaking of. It’s a phenomenal way to train mindfulness.
So yeah, I’m a major fan of meditation, partly because it’s not very stimulating, so you really need to build up that muscle, as it were, of attention to do it. But it’s not the only way.
Grove: I love that you say about stimulation, because I think for many people, as well as for me, something that scared me away from meditation in the beginning is that I was like, “Oh my goodness, I just can’t sit still. There’s no way I’m going to be able to just sit and do nothing.” I noticed that you are an avid rock climber, actually, and my love for rock climbing is what led me to meditation. Because I found that when I had a quieter mind, when I had a still mind, I could focus on the climb more. I could get rid of a lot of the fear that would creep into my body and make me freeze up on the wall.
So other things, other sports, and yoga practice and things like that, can sometimes be a good way to start focusing your mind in an active way, if you can’t seem to sit and focus without some sort of stimulation for your whole body.
Hanson: I think you’re exactly right. There’s this essay back in the ’70s, I think by Doug Roberts, that compared mountain area rock climbing to spiritual practice. He pointed out half a dozen very powerful parallels, such as, as you find in yoga, the rhythm of intense activity, if you will, and then rest. Activity, rest. Like when you’re belaying someone, you’re pretty rested, and then it’s your turn to climb. Or the sensory deprivation. Even though it’s gorgeous in some ways, it’s a fairly blank space when you’re climbing on a big wall. The color’s pretty monochromatic and the features are pretty similar. Again, like doing meditation where your eyes are closed, perhaps, or you’re just looking at a wall right in front of you.
Grove: I love, too, that you brought up food, since we are a raw food magazine and celebrate food and health and preparing fresh, healthy things. That can be such a refreshing, peaceful practice, and just thinking about your food and where it comes from and creating something beautiful that is nourishing to you. So I love that. But talking about meditation just a little bit more specifically, what is it about meditation, or why is meditation so powerful for the mind, for the brain?
Hanson: That’s a great question. At this point, there have been so many studies on the physical health benefits of meditation or related mindfulness practices, as well as the mental health benefits for issues like depression and anxiety, distinct from just general wellbeing. There have been so many studies done now that if Merck or Pfizer or another big pharmaceutical company could patent meditation, trust me, we’d be seeing ads for it every night on TV, and probably fewer ads for Prozac or Xanax or something. There’s just a tremendous amount of research for it.
I think meditation accomplishes its benefits through multiple pathways. One, through general stress relief pathways that are not unique to meditation. For example, if you’re doing yoga or walking the dog or just sitting by the window with a cup of tea, staring out into space, you’re getting some stress relief there. That’s good though. But more specific to meditation, you’re really training attention. You’re building up the executive function regions of your brain, mainly behind your forehead, and studies show that you literally thicken layers of neural tissue there if you routinely meditate.
Also, you are getting better at regulating your emotions, because part of what you do when you meditate is you disengage from thoughts and feelings and desires as they come along. You don’t suppress them, but you disengage from them. You don’t give them juice. And that’s a form of emotional regulation, self-regulation. So you build up that muscle, too, and you also tune more into yourself. It’s about really coming home into your experience, including in a very rich and present moment, deeply intimate with yourself kind of way. That also builds up layers of cortical tissue on another part of your brain called the insula that’s very involved in self-awareness.
Also you tend to strengthen positive emotions because meditation generally draws people into deeper states of wellbeing, and in many traditions, intense positive emotion of one kind or another are considered a means to the ends of awakening. For example, in Buddhism, one I know well, it’s considered that bliss, as well as happiness, which includes contentment, or more subtly, tranquility, that bliss or happiness are factors of absorption. They can help you get more absorbed in your meditation, which is the doorway to liberating insight.
Those are some of the ways in which meditation can help. I should add that for many people, their form of meditation includes a relationship with something divine, and therefore prayer. It has a quality of prayer in it. I think that’s an important component, too, for whom that’s what they want to do.
Grove: Do you remember the first time that you tried to meditate? What was your first experience like?
Hanson: I don’t remember the exact first time, but I do remember the first times in general, and to be honest, I was kind of blown away by the impact. I just kind of sat there and tried to stay with my breath for a few minutes, and then maybe 10 or 20 minutes total. What I noticed was that one, my mind kept racing and bouncing around, and that was humbling but very eye opening, as it were. Like, “wow.”
Grove: There’s a lot going on up there. I had no idea.
Hanson: Yeah. All that background chatter, we don’t notice it; you really notice it when you’re meditating. But let’s remembering, neurons that fire together, wire together. That background chatter is forming structure in your brain, and a lot of that background chatter is, to use a technical term, caca. In other words, it’s not good for you. That was insight #1.
And then #2, I noticed that my mind started settling down, which was sweet. To use a traditional metaphor, it’s as if my mind was this pond that was all stirred up, full of mud and sediment, but as I sat, the sediments gradually had an opportunity to settle down, and then the pond itself became clearer and more peaceful. Then that got me hooked. I thought, “Wow, this is pretty cool stuff.”
Grove: If you wouldn’t mind, I would love to have you guide us in a short meditation.
Hanson: Sure, my pleasure. I’ll do this briefly. It’ll be about five or so minutes long, and if you’re listening to this, I do not suggest that you do this while driving or operating heavy equipment, etc., etc. You’re welcome to leave your eyes open or closed; it’s totally up to you. You could be sitting, standing or lying down. If you lie down, it’s a little easier to drift off, so you might want to sit up or at least stand up. But it’s up to you. A lot of good meditation is done lying down. I call it “beditation.” When I’m in bed sometimes and I can’t go back to sleep.