The deepest roots of the highest happiness are in the living body. At the intersection of modern science, ancient wisdom, and practice—which could be called “neurodharma”—we can find very effective tools for resilient well-being.
In this live webinar, psychologist and best-selling author Rick Hanson explained the foundations of neurodharma and the transformative potential it has to protect, nurture, and free the mind and generate compassion and love in the world. He shared what goes on in our minds and bodies when we are stable, present, calm, content, open-hearted, self-accepting, and feeling connectedness respect for mystery.
Hanson read an excerpt from his new book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness, which is about the heights of human potential and the neuroscience of awakening. “If those heights are like a great mountain,” he reads “awakening is the magnificent journey that carries you along to the top.”
There are many routes up the mountain of awakening and many people throughout history have made it quite far on the journey. Hanson identified the seven qualities that these great sages, both famous and unknown alike, tend to share:
That said, Hanson notes that these qualities are not reserved for the few. They already exist within each one of us and we can help awaken them through practice. Hanson identifies seven practices for embodying these qualities in our daily life:
He used the famous saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together” to describe what goes on as we engage in these practices. Consistently practicing helps hardwire positive traits deep into our being. Over time, we cultivate an unshakable core that gives us a sense of fullness and balance, allowing us to engage life from a place of authenticity, enthusiasm, and moral commitment.
“We develop trait qualities like inner peace and inner strength by experiencing them viscerally and repeatedly while internalizing those experience, so we gradually cultivate those qualities inside ourselves.”
This “trait-mindfulness” develops over time through the two-stage process of learning. First, we get our neurons firing by experiencing mindfulness or engaging in other practices that calm the body and regulate our attention. Second, we slow down to register what mindfulness feels like in our bodies—paying attention to our bodily sensations.
Hanson acknowledged how paying attention to one’s body and breath can be triggering for survivors of trauma. In such instances, he recommends simply paying attention to the fact that your body is essentially okay at this moment in time: “Your heart is beating, awareness is occurring, you are okay, underneath it all, you are basically alright.” Recognizing what is true can be assuring, and by firing these neurons together, it can begin to hardwire within us a fundamental sense of alright-ness.
During the webinar, Hanson led the Virtual Sanctuary community through a “three breaths practice” to illustrate what happens in our bodies and minds when we engage in mindfulness. For the first breath, we brought our attention to our chest as a whole. For the second breath, we put our hands on our hearts and brought to mind those we love and care for. For the third breath, we cultivated a sense of being loved and cared for.
Hanson explained how tuning into our bodies and feeling our chest as a whole is like a circuit breaker that helps quiet the verbal activity and internal chatter of our minds. Opening our hearts, by recalling the experience of receiving or extending care, helps calm and center us and can minimize anxiety and pain.
“There is more oxytocin activity related to this sense of positive relatedness with others that acts in the prefrontal regions behind the forehead in a way that lowers anxiety.”
Keeping our hearts open is critical in this time of mass suffering under COVID-19. Living generously not only helps heal the world but can be healing for us, too. Hanson cited the research of Shelley E. Taylor, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, which focuses on dealing with stress through “tending and befriending.” She has documented the moral value this has for others, but also the ways that it helps us de-stress and foster a sense of agency.
In addition to answering audience questions, Hanson ended by with a reminder from the Buddha:
“Practices are just rafts; they are techniques used to cross a river of suffering. Once you get to the other side, it’s important to not carry your raft around, but to move on from it.”
For additional information, resources, online courses, meditation programs, and more, visit Rick Hanson’s website.
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Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, therapist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, he has lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
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