Neurodharma: Brain Science and Spirituality
Photo Credit: Mike McGee
Psychologist Rick Hanson shares how meditation changes the wiring in our brain, how make your practice your own, and how science and contemplative practice are connected.
Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist and a New York Times best-selling author of multiple books, including Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, and Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence and a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. In his new book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness, a follow up to his book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Hanson shares seven practices for creating the neural circuitry necessary for peace and contentment.
S&H: You mention you first encountered awareness practices decades ago. Can you share where and how you first discovered them?
Rick Hanson: I grew up in a casually Methodist home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, where I doubt that the word “meditation” was ever spoken. But I went to UCLA in the early 1970’s when the human potential movement was in full flood, and I enthusiastically jumped into it. This led to studying the Eastern spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism, which immediately rang true to me and touched my heart. I began meditating in 1974, and over the years (gulp, decades!), my practice has become more disciplined and continuous . . . though, it’s still a work in progress.
S&H: How has this changed your life?
Rick: For me, there has been a weaving together of practices and perspectives from meditation, clinical psychology, the Buddha’s penetrating analysis of suffering and happiness, and the perennial wisdom from around the world (both spiritual and secular).
All of this has definitely changed my life for the better! It’s helped me be a lot calmer, happier, and more loving. (Which my wife and now-adult children have appreciated; in a way, that’s the true test of practice—what the people closest to you experience around you.) It’s brought me deep inner peace.
S&H: Your book expertly combines modern neuroscience with spiritual traditions. Do you feel that we are on the cusp of a new way of approaching this, and not seeing science and faith in conflict, as some people have in the past?
Rick: I do think that there is growing interest in the ways that science and contemplative practice can be combined to support beneficial changes in the mind-body process within ordinary reality.
I’m tip-toeing carefully in my language here to mark an important distinction between what is happening in ordinary reality – which science can sometimes help us understand (it’s lousy at poetry, the arts, etc.) – and what the religious and spiritual traditions have pointed to that is meaningfully distinct from ordinary reality: what transcends it.
By definition, science is applied to the ordinary, Big Bang universe of “natural” phenomena. It can’t tell us anything about what lies beyond it, and it shouldn’t try.
So, if by “faith” we mean something that is about what lies beyond ordinary reality, I don’t think that science is relevant to those aspects of faith. So, it can’t be in conflict with them.
On the other hand, if “faith” is making assertions about natural phenomena within ordinary reality, such as whether humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, then science can tell us a lot about those assertions.
To cut to the chase here, I think of my personal practice as using both science and contemplative training to clear the crud off of the “stained glass windows” of my consciousness so that the transcendental light that was always already there can shine through more brightly.
S&H: Do you have a favorite way to meditate, such as in the morning with a cup of tea, etc.?
Rick: I’ve been doing this for awhile now, so honestly, I feel “meditative” much of the time. (Though, I can definitely still get my knickers in a twist sometimes.) In terms of formal practice, I try to drop into meditation before getting out of bed in the morning and sort of settle my mind and get in touch with my aspirations for service and awakening. Then at night, my wife and I usually meditate together before going to sleep. I also like meditating with my sitting group, which has now moved online; I’m guiding the practice for others–which is very good for me, too!
S&H: How do you respond to busy people who claim they don’t have time for reflection or meditation?
Rick: In practical terms, I ask them if they have one minute a day to come home to themselves, feel their body breathing, be aware of what it’s like to stay in the present, and feel the dust settle at least a bit inside their mind.
Of course, everyone has at least one minute for this. So, the deeper questions come forward, and with respect and interest, I may ask them, such as: Would you like to feel less stressed? Less driven? Are you as contented and peaceful inside as you’d like to be? Do you feel able to plop your attention where you’d like it to rest and keep it there? Do you feel able to pull your attention away from repetitive rumination, worries, and resentments? Would you like to become more skillful with your own thoughts and feelings? What do you think would be the benefits of meditation for you?
What becomes quickly clear is that the crux is motivation, not actually any significant practical constraint on one minute of practice . . . or ten. So, I move past the practical “yes, but” to what does the person really feel and really long for.
Then there are just details, such as what sort of meditation in what setting for how long. There are so many ways to meditate, reflect, or pray. I’m fine with whatever people want to do. It’s like exercise: there are zillions of types, and the most important type of meditation . . . is the one that a person will actually keep doing.
In Neurodharma, I present many different meditative methods and experiences, as well as different depths, from a taste to a full immersion. I feel it’s respectful to offer choices to people.
S&H: Do you think American consumer culture has changed our neural circuits to crave more things? How can we be more mindful of that and release the sensation of craving?
Rick: Unfortunately, yes.
In the saying from the work of the psychologist, Donald Hebb: Neurons that fire together, wire together. Fleeting thoughts and feelings leave lasting traces in neural structure. Whatever we stimulate in the brain tends to grow stronger over time.
I sometimes think that the greatest minds of our generation have been designing even more clever ways to get us to crave more stuff and buy more things. A short-term “fix” that leads to long-term suffering. What to do?
All seven of the ways of being that are developed in Neurodharma – steadiness, lovingness, fullness, wholeness, nowness, allness, and timelessness – are helpful in disengaging from the machinery of craving and suffering. In particular, the practice of resting in fullness – which includes equanimity, contentment, and calm strength – explores how to develop a resilient unconditional well-being. Then we can deal with the challenges and opportunities of life while feeling already full, already enough.
In psychological and biological terms, the craving which the Buddha pointed to in his Second Noble Truth is a “drive state,” based on an underlying sense of something missing, something wrong: a deficit or disturbance in the meeting of an important need. So when we repeatedly internalize genuine experiences (usually mild, but still real) of needs met enough in the moment – safe enough now, satisfied enough, contented enough – then we truly can weave this sense of enoughness into the fabric of our being.
So, when the waves of life rock us, they don’t knock us over, and we can chart our course without the afflictions of greed and hatred, resentment and shame.
S&H: You brought up a very cool idea that, because the universe is still expanding from the Big Boom, we are always on the expanding edge of time. “Now” is literally happening and the future has not yet been created? Am I getting that right? Can you tell us more about this idea?
Rick: A person’s brain and mind are in a particular state at any moment, and those states change over time. Sounds straightforward, right? (As my kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”)
But actually, no one really knows what “time” is, or why it is! And “now” is even more perplexing. It is always now, yet it’s unclear exactly how the universe makes time – or how time makes the universe.
Still, there are some good guesses, and I like this one from the UC Berkeley physicist, Richard Muller. Since Einstein, a standard scientific description of our Big Bang universe is that it is an ongoing expansion of four-dimensional space-time. He suggests that, just as space is being generated by this expansion, time is also being created. So, in every moment, the universe gets a little bigger, and there is also a little more time!
What we experience as “now” is the leading edge of this expansion of time. In effect, when we rest in the present moment, we are resting in creation continuously . . . the creation of new time. Wow!
Look for a review of Neurodharma in our May/June print issue, and read an excerpt from the book.