Please enjoy this adapted excerpt from the newly released book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness from IONS partner Dr. Rick Hanson.
A Path That Progresses
The seven themes of this book — steadying the mind, warming the heart, resting in fullness, being wholeness, receiving nowness, opening into allness, and finding timelessness — have been explored in many ways by many people in many traditions. They involve experiencing what is out in the open and not hidden: we can be more mindful and loving, we can afford to crave less, we are innately whole, this moment is the only moment there is, and each person exists interdependently with everything else.
These ways of being are accessible to all of us, and their essence is available without years of rigorous training. There are many ways you can have a greater sense of them in everyday life and weave them into things you’re already doing, such as going for a walk. You don’t need a background in science or meditation to develop a greater sense of contentment or kindness. Even 10 minutes a day, spread out here and there, can make a difference — if you do the practice, day after day. As with anything, the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. What gives me both trust and hope is that this is a path we can walk step after step through our own efforts, not a magical quick fix.
Unless you’re already living on top of the mountain of awakening — and I’m not there myself — there remains something to do. How should we do it?
Going While Being
There are two answers to this question. One emphasizes a gradual process that includes reducing unhappiness and growing compassion, insight, and equanimity. The other focuses on recognizing an innate perfection in which there is nothing to gain. Both of these answers are correct, and they support each other. We need to heal and grow, and we can stay in touch with our deep true nature along the way.
In the mind, it takes a while to uncover who we already are. There is a saying: “Gradual cultivation… sudden awakening… gradual cultivation… sudden awakening…” As Milarepa, the Tibetan sage, described his life of practice: In the beginning nothing came, in the middle nothing stayed, and in the end nothing left. Meanwhile, a sense of your innate wakefulness and goodness is inspiring and encouraging, and it helps you keep going when things are boring or hard.
In the brain, trauma and ordinary neurotic crud are embedded in neural circuitry, which takes time to alter. Developing happiness, emotional intelligence, and a loving heart also requires gradual physical changes. At the same time, when you are not rattled or distressed, your brain settles into its innate resting state. Then it recovers from bursts of activity and releases neurochemicals, such as serotonin and oxytocin, that support a positive mood and kindness toward others. This is our neuropsychological home base: to be calm, contented, and caring. No matter how disturbed by stress and sorrow, we can always come home.
Letting Be, Letting Go, Letting In
Developing a greater sense of fullness, wholeness, and other aspects of awakening involves three kinds of practice. First, you can simply be with whatever you’re experiencing: accepting it, feeling it, perhaps exploring it. As you be with it, your experience may change, but you’re not trying to nudge it one way or another. Second, you can release what is painful or harmful, such as by easing tension in the body, venting feelings, challenging thoughts that aren’t true or helpful, or disengaging from desires that hurt you or others. Third, you can grow what is enjoyable or useful: developing virtues and skills, becoming more resilient, grateful, and compassionate. In a nutshell: let be, let go, let in. If your mind is like a garden, you can observe it, pull weeds, and plant flowers.
Of these, letting be is most essential. It’s where we start, and sometimes it’s all we can do: just ride out the storm of fear or anger without making things worse. And as practice matures, increasingly we simply be with the next moment as it arises and passes away and becomes something else. But this is not the whole of practice. We can’t only be with the mind, we must work with it as well. While there are pitfalls in working with the mind, such as getting caught up in “fixing” oneself, there are also pitfalls in not working with the mind. For instance, I’ve known people who are good at observing their own minds . . . and also chronically unhappy as well as unskillful with others. We shouldn’t work with the mind in order to avoid being with it, nor be with the mind to avoid working with it.
Letting be, letting go, and letting in form a natural sequence. Perhaps you recognize that you’ve gotten resentful about something, and you explore this experience and let it be as it is. At some point it feels natural to shift into deliberately letting go, and you relax your body, help feelings flow, and step back from troublesome thoughts. Then, in the space made by what you’ve cleared away, you can let in what could be beneficial, such as self-compassion. Over time, the strengths you develop inside yourself will help you let be and let go even more fully.
This excerpt is from the book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness (Harmony 2020) written by IONS partner Dr. Rick Hanson.
Rick Hanson, PhD, is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 28 languages and include Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.
You can pre-order his new book by visiting: https://www.rickhanson.net/books/neurodharma/