Q&A with Rick Hanson on Neurodharma, brain science, personal practice and well-being

Psy­chol­o­gist and neu­ro­science expert Rick Han­son stud­ies the men­tal resources that pro­mote resilience, from calm and grat­i­tude to con­fi­dence and courage. Accord­ing to Han­son, the coro­n­avirus cri­sis is expos­ing some of our psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and remind­ing us how impor­tant it is to nur­ture our social and emo­tion­al strengths.

In his new book, Neu­rod­har­ma, Han­son writes about how we can cul­ti­vate more equa­nim­i­ty, wis­dom, and moral action using med­i­ta­tion and oth­er prac­tices. As he illus­trates with neu­ro­science research, prac­tic­ing pos­i­tive states of being like these can lead to phys­i­cal changes in the brain, which in turn improve our state of mind in the future.

Jill Sut­tie: How does under­stand­ing neu­ro­science help peo­ple cul­ti­vate well-being?

Rick Han­son: I don’t think brain sci­ence is nec­es­sary for full awak­en­ing. It’s not nec­es­sary for ordi­nary psy­cho­log­i­cal heal­ing or the devel­op­ment of resilient well-being over time, either. Many peo­ple have obvi­ous­ly proved that point by devel­op­ing in those ways with­out access to an MRI or the lat­est study.

On the oth­er hand, we rec­og­nize sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly that the expe­ri­ences of a human being—how con­tent­ed you are, how ful­filled you feel in your rela­tion­ships, what hap­pens when anoth­er per­son mis­treats you—are all based on what the body is doing, espe­cial­ly our neurobiology.

So, if we’re inter­est­ed in dis­en­gag­ing from dread, fear, and help­less­ness and engag­ing in a feel­ing of calm strength and open­heart­ed­ness, we should be inter­est­ed in how the brain is mak­ing those expe­ri­ences hap­pen. And we should be inter­est­ed in how we can inter­vene in the brain skill­ful­ly, with pre­ci­sion and some gran­u­lar­i­ty, to help our­selves and oth­ers have ben­e­fi­cial expe­ri­ences more often and learn from them more effec­tive­ly. When you under­stand how the hard­ware works, it tur­bocharges your practice.

The book is full of exam­ples where iden­ti­fy­ing under­ly­ing neur­al “cir­cuit­ry” that under­pins ben­e­fi­cial traits—such as present-moment aware­ness or grate­ful contentment—helps to estab­lish them in our­selves. You can delib­er­ate­ly stim­u­late those cir­cuits, and, as you start hav­ing those expe­ri­ences, you can also help your brain height­en the con­ver­sion of those expe­ri­ences into last­ing changes of neur­al struc­ture and func­tion. So that’s real­ly useful.

The sec­ond rea­son is that it’s moti­vat­ing to bring neu­ro­science into account. You appre­ci­ate that your brain is being changed by your prac­tices and also by your bad habits. A lot of peo­ple who have not typ­i­cal­ly been drawn to per­son­al growth get real­ly inter­est­ed in it when they real­ize that it’s “techie”; there’s an engi­neer­ing aspect here. Prac­tice actu­al­ly changes the phys­i­cal­i­ty of your brain.

It can also sharp­en your insight into your moment-to-moment expe­ri­ence if you under­stand it’s based on very fast ebbs and flows of neu­ro­chem­i­cal activ­i­ty. Increas­ing­ly, I can watch the show in the the­ater of my own con­scious­ness with an under­stand­ing of what’s actu­al­ly prompt­ing the expe­ri­ences I’m hav­ing. Whether it’s a surge of anger or whether it’s a wave of calm, whether it’s some kind of a warm con­nec­tion or whether there’s some feel­ing of being dis­missed or dis­re­spect­ed by some­body else, I can under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing in my brain that’s gen­er­at­ing that expe­ri­ence. It real­ly helps you come home to your­self when you real­ize that your expe­ri­ence is a body-mind process.

JS: Isn’t there a con­flict between the idea of self-accep­tance and the desire to be a bet­ter, more effec­tive per­son in the world? How do you rec­on­cile those two seem­ing­ly oppos­ing goals?

RH: Yeah, that’s a clas­sic ques­tion. But basi­cal­ly all the great teach­ers say to do both. We are innate­ly wake­ful, lov­ing beings deep down in our core, but most peo­ple, me includ­ed, are not like that all the time. We’re not con­tin­u­ous­ly liv­ing from our innate good­ness. We must make efforts over time to clear away the crud so we can come home to who we always were.

We need to grad­u­al­ly cul­ti­vate the slow accu­mu­la­tion of prac­tice on the path and then we may expe­ri­ence sud­den awak­en­ings that cre­ate qual­i­ta­tive shifts. We need to engage will­ful effort in our mind as well as be able to have a pro­found serene accep­tance under­neath it all. They’re not at odds with each oth­er; both are nec­es­sary, and each one sup­ports the other.

JS: How is your book rel­e­vant to our cur­rent moment, as we encounter the changes in our lives around the pandemic?

RH: If you think about peo­ple who are mod­els to us, who have real­ly devel­oped them­selves, what you see in them is great for­ti­tude and com­mit­ment to oth­ers; they are incred­i­bly strong and brave. For me, the book is a man­u­al of deep resilience; it real­ly empha­sizes what we can devel­op each day ourselves.

My opin­ion about this time is that many of us have been propped up by var­i­ous activ­i­ties and set­tings and inter­ac­tions and the expe­ri­ences that we had as a result. And that was fine, as long as the music was play­ing. But when the music stops and the storm comes as it has, and so much of that which we relied upon has fall­en out from beneath our feet, we are left with what we have cul­ti­vat­ed inside our own heart, inside our own being. This time teach­es us how impor­tant it is to grad­u­al­ly grow the good inside oneself.

This time calls on us to prac­tice, as both indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties, like we’ve nev­er prac­ticed before.

JS: But how does each of us pur­su­ing our own enlight­ened way of being real­ly con­tribute to the greater social good?

RH: I think there’s a false dichoto­my between the per­son­al and the polit­i­cal. We can see all around us peo­ple who devel­op them­selves, in terms of mind­ful­ness, com­pas­sion, con­fi­dence, grit, and com­mit­ment to help­ing oth­ers. As we cul­ti­vate these over time, we become more able to be help­ful to peo­ple around us, and to take effec­tive action for the greater good.

Peo­ple who devel­op a core of resilient well-being, so that they’re not so pre­oc­cu­pied or dis­tract­ed by a lot of suf­fer­ing or psy­cho­log­i­cal issues, also devel­op strengths that make them more effec­tive in the world. Dacher [Kelt­ner] and oth­er researchers have shown that when peo­ple feel more whole and have a sense of self-worth, and as they cul­ti­vate a greater sense of com­pas­sion, they’re more inclined to be proso­cial. It’s when peo­ple feel des­per­ate and emp­ty inside that they’re less like­ly to be proso­cial. And, in the process of help­ing the com­mon good, we have many oppor­tu­ni­ties for expe­ri­ences of ful­fill­ment and well-being. The two are intertwined—the per­son­al and the political.

JS: What would you most like peo­ple to take away from your book?

RH: The pow­er of per­son­al prac­tice and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of pro­found per­son­al devel­op­ment. I think every per­son is long­ing for more—not as crav­ing or a world-deny­ing dis­missal of ordi­nary life, but as a long­ing for a deep peace, love, and con­tent­ment, and a release from always grasp­ing for more. It could include a long­ing for some­thing that feels deep­er or dif­fer­ent than ordi­nary real­i­ty. These are impor­tant long­ings to honor.

I think there are a lot of peo­ple who med­i­tate a lit­tle here, prac­tice a lit­tle grat­i­tude there, and it’s good. It’s way bet­ter than the alter­na­tive. But they have hit a kind of plateau, where it’s com­fort­able, it’s pleas­ant. But, if a per­son is inter­est­ed in next steps, what­ev­er those might be, I want to encour­age them to take those next steps. Your per­son­al path of awak­en­ing hon­ors that deep long­ing for more.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

To Learn More:

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?