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:
- New book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness
- 3 ways to protect your mental health during –and after– COVID-19 (in Spanish: Tres hábitos de higiene mental para vencer al COVID-19 y crear un futuro más saludable)
- Three tips for wise minds to calm coronavirus anxiety
- Exploring the human brain and how it responds to stress (1/3)
- On World Health Day 2020, let’s discuss the stress response and the General Adaptation Syndrome (2/3)
- The frontal lobes, the little brain down under and “Stayin’ Alive” (3/3)