Mind Matters — Just One Thing …

In a very un-Buddhist maneuver, I swatted a stinkbug in the midst of reading Just One Thing: Developing a Buddhist Brain One Simple Practice at a Time, by Rick Hanson, PhD. Maybe in time I will let go of my stinkbug problem (which came about after one little critter crawled in my ear several summers ago). Meanwhile, the simple practices Hanson recommends in his pragmatic primer are the wedding of Buddhist mindfulness with neuroscience. Little exercises can change our brains because of “experience-dependent neuroplasticity.”

For better or worse, “How you use your mind changes your brain.” Psychologist Donald Hebb’s phrase for this is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Point being, if we use our minds for anger, worry, self-criticizing, or critical reactivity to others, we are shaping our neural structures of the brain to conform to that mindset. Yet we can retrain the brain when we mindfully see the good in ourselves, when we let go, when we can tell ourselves, “You’re all right now,” notes Hanson.

Succinctly, yet almost poetically, Hanson describes how to develop calm strength, self-confidence, and inner peace. Yes, his is yet another self-help book, but it is laden with little bursts of simple wisdom that he has integrated from many masters. For example, he relates what practically every psychotherapist says: Risk the dreaded experience. He describes the universal routine of human experience: a feeling or desire arises which seeks expression followed by an associated expectation of emotional pain—that is, “the dreaded experience.” And so comes the shutdown of feeling and expression—the inhibiting response.

I observe this pattern in my office many times: A person feels sadness or some other feeling arise; expression of this feeling may have been forbidden in the family and so it is again repressed. This is where the person jokes or avoids by changing the subject.

Change of this old pattern—self-expression to expectation of pain to inhibition—comes about by first observing it in ourselves, and then slowly challenging ourselves to risk expression. And then there is “imperfection!” How refreshing it is to read an author not scolding for disorganization and brokenness. Quite the contrary, Hanson notes, “imperfections are all around, and they include messes, dirty clothes, weeds, snarled traffic, … injury, illness, disability, pain, problems … loss … objects … chipped, frayed, broken; mistakes … confusion … war and famine, poverty, oppression, injustice.” While it is important to change what we can and work for the good, it is also important to learn acceptance for what is. Anxiety arises when we lose sight of the latter.

Fear is one aspect of generalized anxiety. Hanson considers that evolution has actually provided us with anxious brains in order to survive “the tiger in the bushes.” However, even metaphorically speaking, there often are no “tigers to fear.” Yet fear is fanned by the media and “political groups try to gain or hold onto power by exaggerating apparent threats.” Hanson’s point? “Most of us feel much less safe than we actually are.”

Humility, generosity, and being brave enough to love, Hanson would say, are the means to counteract anxiety and fear—for me, stinkbugs notwithstanding.