Today I’m delighted to have an excerpt from a fantastic new book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience Of Happiness, Love & Wisdom (New Harbinger Publications, November 2009), by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, MD., which provides a Buddhist path to changing your brain in order to improve your life.

Taking in the Good

I am larger, better than I thought;
I did not know I held so much goodness.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”

Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind. Some of the results are explicit recollections: this is what I did last summer; that is how I felt when I was in love. But most of the results remain forever unconscious. This is called implicit memory, and it includes your expectations, models of relationships, emotional tendencies, and general outlook. Implicit memory establishes the interior landscape of your mind—what it feels like to be you. In other words, you are largely what you (implicitly) remember, the slowly accumulating residues of lived experience.

In a sense, those residues can be sorted into two piles: those that benefit you and others, and those that cause harm. To paraphrase the Wise Effort section of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, it will help you to create, preserve, and increase beneficial implicit memories, and prevent, eliminate, or decrease harmful ones.

The Negativity Bias of Memory
But here’s the problem: your brain preferentially scans for, registers, stores, recalls, and reacts to unpleasant experiences; as we’ve said, it’s like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. Consequently, even when positive experiences outnumber negative ones, the pile of negative implicit memories naturally grows faster. Then the background feeling of what it feels like to be you becomes undeservedly glum and pessimistic.

Sure, negative experiences do have benefits: loss opens the heart, remorse provides a moral compass, anxiety alerts you to threats, and anger spotlights wrongs that should be righted. But do you really think you’re not having enough negative experiences?! Emotional pain with no benefit to yourself or others is pointless suffering. And pain today breeds more pain tomorrow. For instance, even a single episode of major depression can reshape circuits of the brain to make future episodes more likely.

The remedy is not to suppress negative experiences; when they happen, they happen. Rather, it is to foster positive experiences—and in particular, to really take them in so they become a permanent part of you.

Here’s how, in three steps:

1. Turn positive facts into positive experiences. Good things keep happening all around us, but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we hardly feel them. Someone is nice to you, you see an admirable quality in yourself, a flower is blooming, you finished a difficult project—and it all just rolls by. Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the faces of children, the smell of an orange, a memory from a happy vacation, a minor success at work, and so on. Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them—open up to them and let them affect you. It’s like sitting down to a banquet: don’t just look at it—dig in!

2. Savor the experience. It’s delicious! Make it last by staying with it for 5, 10, even 20 seconds; don’t let your attention skitter off to something else. Focus on your emotions and body sensations, since these are the essence of implicit memory. Let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible. For example, if someone is good to you, let the feeling of being cared about bring warmth to your whole chest.

Pay particular attention to the rewarding aspects of the experience—for example, how good it feels to get a great big hug from someone you love. Focusing on these rewards increases dopamine release, which makes it easier to keep giving the experience your attention, and strengthens its neural associations in implicit memory. You’re not doing this to cling to the rewards—which would make you suffer—but rather to internalize them so that you carry them inside you and don’t need to reach for them in the outer world.

The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory (Lewis 2005). While you’re savoring an experience, your amygdala is busily highlighting its positive emotional meaning for your hippocampus, which integrates that information into its packaging of the experience for storage in long-term memory.

You can also intensify an experience by deliberately enriching it. For example, if you are savoring a relationship experience, you could call up other feelings of being loved by others, which will help stimulate oxytocin—the “bonding hormone”—and deepen your sense of relatedness. Or you could strengthen your feelings of satisfaction after completing a demanding project by thinking about some of the challenges you had to overcome.

3. Imagine or feel the experience is sinking deeply into your mind and body, like warm sun into a T-shirt, water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and meditation teacher. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, he cofounded the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and edits the Wise Brain Bulletin. Check out Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience Of Happiness, Love & Wisdom if you want to take more control of your life in a mindful way by learning more tips like the ones in this excerpt. This has a Buddhist approach, which I fully agree with, because it focuses on your inner well-being, which radiates out to all th eareas of your life. I’ll be reviewing this book next mo

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