This month, as part of my self-care, I have been reading Rick Hanson’s “Buddha’s Brain.” Hanson is a neuropsychologist and and meditation teacher, and believes that the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness on the brain have an evolutionary and biological foundation. I found this book to be organized and well-written, and full of informative and practical examples of how to “train your brain” to feel more peaceful, happy and content. He also has sections on increasing empathy, kindness and concentration. I really enjoyed this book, and found it to be really helpful. If you are stretched for time, the end of each chapter is summarized with bullet-points that outline the main ideas, so you can get the most important information without having to read the whole chapter 🙂
The book is chock full of easy-to-read scientific facts, small meditation scripts, tips and practical advice on how to increase your brain’s capacity for relaxation, happiness, love and wisdom. Here are 5 that stood out to me, although it was hard to limit this to just 5! (Go and read the book for yourself–it’s a great resource to have around!)
1) Increasing Self-Compassion
In order to increase self-compassion, one of the things Hanson suggests is to first bring to mind someone you naturally feel compassion for such as a child, or a person you love. This stimulates the brain to produce a chemical called oxytocin, which helps you feel more compassion and empathy. This “primes” your body for self-compassion.
Next, extend this feeling of compassion towards yourself. Think about your own suffering and send positive messages of good will towards yourself. Visualize love for yourself enveloping you and washing through you, like “gentle rain that touches everything.” In order to strengthen these feelings of self-compassion, your brain will be stimulated by actions related to compassion, like placing your hand on your cheek or heart like you would a child. In your mind, say to yourself positive, comforting phrases such as, “May I be happy again,” or “May the pain of this moment pass.”
2) Amplify the Positive
Hanson tells us that our brain hardwired to be “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” This is how our ancestors survived being eaten or killed. So, in order to maintain a positive outlook, it is important to amplify the positive in our lives. One tip he gives us is to “savor the experience.” Whenever something positive happens in our life, we tend to forget about it fast.
Make the experience last by staying with the feeling for 10-20 seconds. For example, when someone you loves gives you a great big hug, focus on how good it feels, imagine that feeling spreading throughout your whole body. The longer that something is held in our awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire, and the stronger the memory will be. Also, it helps to produce more of the chemical dopamine in our brain, which makes us feel happier and more content.
3) Remember to Breathe
Getting oxygen to the brain has many, many benefits. A big inhalation, followed by a big exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is in charge of regulating our emotions, and calming our “fight or flight” response. Remembering to breathe and focusing on our breathe also helps bring our awareness back to the present and increases our ability to focus. Hanson recommends focusing on our breathing while we are doing everyday activities to improve concentration and memory, and to relax when we are anxious or upset.
On a side note, did you know that fibers from the parasympathetic nervous system are spread throughout your lips? Touching your lips gently helps to stimulate the PNS and bring up soothing feelings associated with eating and even breastfeeding when you were a baby. Hmmm…maybe that’s why kissing is so enjoyable? 😉
4) The Benefits of Equanimity
Equanimity means not reacting to your emotions, whether they be “good” or “bad”. You are present in the world, but not affected by it. This is not being cold or apathetic. You experience emotion, but are not controlled by it. One of Hanson’t suggestions is to imagine the contents of your mind as a vast open space of awareness, with emotions moving through, like shooting stars. Boundless space surrounds these emotions, unaffected by them, simply allowing these emotions to come and go.
Hanson puts it best: “If you can break the link between feeling tones [emotions] and craving–if you can be with the pleasant without chasing after it, with the unpleasant without resisting it, and with the neutral without ignoring it–then you have cut the chain of suffering, at least for a time. And that is an incredible blessing and freedom.” This reminds me of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.
5) Renounce Being Special
According to Hanson, many of us have an unspoken belief that we have to be special or important in some way in order to be loved. This sets us up for inevitable failure, and feelings of worthlessness or self-criticism if we don’t get the attention we crave. It also takes a lot of mental effort and stress to try to achieve such a high standard every day. Hanson recommends “renouncing specialness.”
Periodically say to yourself: “I give up being important. I renounce seeking approval.” Take a moment to sense how this feels. Feel the peace at this surrender. Place your hands on your heart and wish yourself well: “May I be loved without being special. May I contribute without being special.”
These are just some of the examples of what is in this insightful book. Hmm..how might things change if a book like this were required reading in high school?
What are your thoughts on meditation and the brain? Have any of you read this book? Any other related book recommendations?