Matt: Today, we have another incredible guest on the show, Dr. Rick Hanson. Rick is a psychologist, senior fellow The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha's Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nature. He's also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He's been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and many other major universities. Rick, welcome to The Science of Success.
Rick: Matt, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Matt: Well, we're very excited to have you on today. So, to kind of kick things off, tell the audience a little bit about your background and how you kind of became fascinated with the connection between neuroscience, psychology, and some of the Eastern religions like Buddhism.
Rick: Well, I think what got me into it... So, I'm a psychologist and I've been around the block for a while, so I got interested in this stuff actually in the beginning of the '70s, and it just seemed to me logical, I guess, that if you've worked at the intersection of brain science, psychology, and the great contemplative traditions of the world, where those three circles overlap had to be where the coolest stuff was, right? You know, you understand the hardware of the brain, then you're tapping into 100-plus years of good research on psychology, and then you're bringing to bear thousands of years of people doing really hardcore practice training their minds, really exploring the upper reaches of human potential. And just to finish here, it's like if you... I've done a lot of rock climbing, and if I want to get better at rock climbing, I want to watch people who are better than me, right? So, I want to kind of tune in to what are those people doing who are moving like human geckos over the cliffs, and then internalize that, at least my next step in their direction. Well, in the same way, the people who have really explored what it is to be deeply resilient, happy, peaceful, and loving, even in really tough conditions, those are the great contemplative traditions of the world. So, I do a lot of reverse engineering. I try to imagine plausibly what could be the underlying neuropsychological foundations of people who are deeply strong, happy, successful, creative, and so forth, and then work backwards to how can I use the mind alone, no medication, no surgery, the mind alone, to stimulate and therefore strengthen those circuits in the brain, building up muscles, in effect, inside yourself that then you can draw upon everywhere you go, because even though it's certainly good to improve the external environment and improve your own body, you know, those tend to change a lot. But you take your mind with you wherever you are, and by being committed to skillful, self-directed neuroplasticity, I call it, you have an amazing capacity, no matter how tough your life is or what the past has been, to actually build inner resources inside yourself for the future.
Matt: And you touched on something, which is a phrase or a word that people often kind of use interchangeably, which is mind and brain. But you make a really important distinction between the two of those. Can you share that?
Rick: Sure. If you think about it, so we're all having experiences, right? You know, squirrels are having experiences. I think lizards are having experiences. I know my cat is having experiences. I'm having experiences. You're having experiences. We're hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling, thinking, remembering, and so forth. That realm of experience, if you look at it, is immaterial. You cannot hold a sound. You cannot measure a piece of information. Well, so, we live in this world of phenomenology, if you will. It's a virtual reality, and it is continually constructed by the underlying hardware of the brain embedded in the nervous system, embedded in the whole body, embedded in life altogether. So, the point is that when we use a word like "mind" or "mental" or "cognition" or "psyche" or similar kinds of words, they all refer to the realm of immaterial information processing in the nervous system. And that might sound kind of weird to think about, but that's actually the real bottom line. The function of the nervous system is to represent information, including very basic signals like a sound landing on your eardrum, a cascade of changes proliferated through your nervous system, carrying the information of the sound of a car honking or a bell ringing or a baby crying or, you know, your lover murmuring in your ear, whatever it might be. And so, we have then two process happening simultaneously, and this has practical implications. We have mental activity unfolding; conscious experience, which is inherently intangible; and then we have very tangible cushy, molecular, neurotransmitter-based synaptic neural circuitry-based process underlying that flow of immaterial experience. So, the two are going together. There might be supernatural or transcendental factors at work. Personally, I think there is spooky stuff outside the natural frame of science. But that's it. Just inside the natural frame of science, there's an utterly tight correlation, a co-relating, a co-arising of mental and neural activity, and the practical takeaway of that is by shifting or altering what you pay attention to and then what you do with what you're resting your attention upon. By doing that, you can deliberately use mental activity to stimulating the underlying neural activity in various skillful ways we'll probably get into, so that you can grow and internalize more inside yourself, more confidence, more commitment to exercise, more understanding of other people, more skills with other people, more healing from your last--fill in the blank--job, relationship, childhood. You really can't do that from the inside out, which I think is extremely important for just ordinary coping, healing, and wellbeing, but also in terms of adapting to a future that is very dynamic, very changing, very uncertain in which we need to deal with all kinds of new things. Being able to maximize your learning curve from the inside out, through everyday life experiences, is the superpower, in effect, that builds all other powers. And by drawing upon that superpower through learning how to learn... And when I mean "learn", I really refer to social, emotional, motivational, attitudinal, even spiritual kinds of learning, learning how to learn those good things, not just learning your multiplication tables. If you've learned how to learn, that's your superpower, because then you can learn how to learn anything that matters to you.
Matt: And you touched on this, but dig a little deeper into the idea that what happens in your mind can actually change the physical structure of your brain.
Rick: Yeah. It's because neural activity is required for mental activity, and repeated patterns of neural activity change neural structure and function. You know, the classic saying from the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb is, "Neurons that fire together wire together." And on non-human animals, you know, just acknowledging the ethical issues in that territory -- that said, research on non-human animals that can be extremely invasive has really drilled down literally to the molecular or epigenetic processes, which are also molecular, going on inside individual neurons, all the way up to large scale structures. And then related human studies have shown that repeated patterns of thought or feeling, for better or worse... And one of the things you know about my work is that I have really explored the implications of what scientists call the negativity bias of the brain, the ways that, as I put it, it's like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good. We have a brain that's designed to be changed by the experiences flowing through it, especially negative experiences, especially especially when we were young. So, the point being, or kind of the takeaway, is that research has shown that if people more positively, let's say, practice mindfulness routinely or tune into their bodies routinely or do some kind of practice that helps them become happier or more compassionate or more loving or more self-compassionate, then, let's say eight weeks after some program and that, you can see changes in the brain down at the cellular, even synaptic level with MRIs and so forth. And, if people do things over the long haul, for better or worse, you can see major structural changes. Like, literally, people who meditate routinely tend to have measurably thicker cortex, the outer layer of the brain, in regions that regulate attention or help people become self-aware of themselves. It makes sense, you know. You work that muscle, it gets bigger, it gets stronger, and because it's bigger and stronger, making the analogy here for building up tissue and circuitry and functionality in your brain, you then become more able to do various important things like remain mindful, even when the oatmeal's flying all around you. And there are many examples of this, what's called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, including funny things like London taxicab drivers who, at the end of their training, memorizing those spaghetti swirl streets, have a measurably thicker cortex in parts of the brain--in this case, the hippocampus--that are involved in visual-spatial memory. So, they're working the function of some part of the brain, building up structure there. So, a lot of people, it's really jaw-dropping to appreciate that, to update a traditional term, your mind takes this shape from it routinely rests upon. And people can just feel this in their everyday life. Are you ruminating about what's irritating, what worries you, how you feel hurt or let down, or are you really caught up in a feeling of stressful driven-ness? You know, gotta get all this stuff done, tense and uptight? Or, is your moment to moment experience much more dominated by feelings of calm strength, feeling already connected to other people, already fundamentally contented, even as you dream big dreams and aspire without attachment, I put it, or feel, even though you're grappling with challenges and even threats, that deep in your core, you're not being touched by this stuff that's happening. You know, where is your attention resting, and how deeply can you take into yourself those beneficial experiences, knowing that your brain is designed to fast-track irritating, stressful, hurtful, anxiety-provoking experiences, deep into your neural structure? I mean, that's the negativity bias of the brain. That's the Velcro for the bad of the brain. And one of the, finishing up here, things that I really work on, and people can check out my freely-offered resources on my website, rickhanson.net, one of the things I’m really interested in is helping people, number one, learn how to learn, right? That's the superpower. And then apply that superpower to growing those particular inner strengths, those psychological resources, mental resources inside themselves that will help them deal with whatever they've got to deal with. Maybe they're trying to really rise in their job. Maybe they're really trying to find out what do they need to develop inside themselves to be happier in their intimate relationships or more successful there. What do they need to grow inside themselves to compensate for feelings of hurt or mistreatment from their childhood or past as an adult, let's say? If you think right now, listening to this, what, if it were more present in your mind routinely, would really help you these days? What would help you be more effective, happier, more healed, more able to contribute to other people? And then, you know, I use my methods for helping people grow that particular muscle, as it were, inside their nervous system, that then they can draw upon any way they want.
Matt: I love that description, and I think that... I love the phrase "Neurons that fire together wire together". It gives people a very concrete and kind of simple way to understand that in a very physical, biological, real sense, your thoughts shape and change your brain.
Rick: Yeah, that's right. And don't underestimate. I mean, a lot of the major research is on how chronic stress changes the brain, right? Or depressed mood or irritation or holding onto grievance with other people or feeling helpless or defeated. You know, we're very designed to be very affected neurologically by those kinds of experiences. And, to be clear, nothing here is about denying what's bad or rose-colored glasses as a way to look at the world or positive thinking. I don't believe in positive thinking. I believe in realistic thinking. I want to see everything. But, you know, honestly, even though I'm a little bit of a touchy-feely kind of guy as a longtime therapist, I'm kind of tough as nails. I really feel like, number one, life is often challenging, and the whole fundamental thing is help is probably not coming from the outside very often, you know. We've got to deal from the inside out with our own life. And the question of it comes, how do you be self-reliant? How do you really autonomously develop inner strengths of various kinds to deal with your own real life? And then, second piece of hard-headedness in my part is about this negativity bias. It's really gutting that what matters most in life is learning, is growing, developing, healing, figuring stuff out and so forth. Because you can't do anything about the past. The only question is, are you growing, learning, developing, improving from this point going forward? And when you really, really kind of get from the inside out that it's on you, no one can make you learn, right? Only you, whoever you are--in this case, me, Rick Hanson--only oneself can help oneself learn from life's experiences. And we have a brain that's designed to cling to the negative or chase the positive, you know, or this sense of internal driven-ness and discontent, you know, is where we come from. And it's really profound to realize that in your day-to-day, five, ten times over the course of the day, ten, 20 seconds at a time, there will be opportunities to really register beneficial experiences and, therefore, heighten the encoding process and the consolidation process that converts in your body, converts that beneficial experience into some kind of lasting change of neural structure and function. And most people blow right by those moments. They waste them. I certainly have, you know. They're nice in the moment, you know. A feeling of accomplishment, let's say a work or hanging out in the lunch room, kicking back with people, nice sense of camaraderie, maybe, or you step outside and, you know, there's something that beautiful that catches your eye, or you remember someone who cares about you, or you feel caring yourself. Whatever it is, we're having these moments. But are they making any difference? Or are they flowing through the brain like water through a sieve, which is what routinely happens, while negative material gets caught in that sieve every time. And five, ten times a day, people have an opportunity to take into themselves, to accept the good that's potentially available here, take it into themselves. They have that opportunity multiple times a day, and one of the, for me, most practical, grounded in science, and positive things a person can do is to look for those five, ten moments a day, usually a dozen or two dozen seconds long at a time, not a big deal, but then use them. You know, bring a big spoon. Bring a vacuum cleaner. Suck them into yourself as a way to fill yourself up from the inside out. And that's a phenomenal opportunity to have, especially at a time when so many of us feel pushed around by external forces. At least inside our own heads, we're the boss, and there are things that we can do.
Matt: So, going back to the idea of what creates this negativity bias, can you touch on how the brain's survival strategies kind of lead us to suffering?
Rick: Yeah, starting with a practical example. You know, you're in a relationship, let's say. 19 things happen in a day, or 20 things happen in a day. 19 are positive, one's negative. What's the one you kind of think about as you're falling asleep? Or your boss gives you a performance review, right? Ten items of feedback. Nine are positive, one is room for improvement. What's the one you think about? It's that negative piece of information. So, you know, we all have a feeling for that from the inside out. You know, we're in a meeting, we make ten points, right, and nine of them are really good and one of them we use the word incorrectly. What's the one we obsess about as we're going down the elevator, you know, after that meeting? It's the negative thing. So, we're designed to do that. It's not personal. It's not a character flaw. We're designed to do that because negative experiences, over the 600 million year evolution of the nervous system, you know, negative experiences of predators or pain or natural hazards or aggression inside your band or between bands, those negative experiences usually had more urgency and impact for raw survival than positive experiences did of finding food or hanging out with your little rat family or your little monkey family or caveman family. They're nice, but they don't matter as much for our survival. So, we have a brain today that's designed to do five things. I'll just go through them fast. One: Scan for bad news. You can watch that in yourself. You're always kind of looking. What's the threat? What's the thing that I've got that I might lose? What's uneasy or unsettled in my relationships? Scan for threat. Second: When we find that threat, when we identify that one tile in the mosaic of reality or our experience, that one tile that's flashing yellow or orange or red, whoosh! The brain over-focuses down upon it, losing sight of the big picture, to deal with the immediate reality. Friend or foe, right? And then the third thing that happens: The brain's designed to overreact to negative stimuli. If you play sounds for people or pictures for people that are equally intense, equally loud or bright, et cetera, the brain reacts more to the negative content, because again, that's what we're designed to do. And then fourth: Now that we've scanned for bad news, over-focused upon it, and overreacted to it, whoosh! That whole package, number four, is fast-tracked into emotional memory. Never forget. Once burned, twice shy. Lots of examples of that. For example, in relationships, negative interactions are more memorable than positive ones. Thus, attack ads in politics, negative advertising, people remember bad information about others more than positive information or good information about others. It's really easy for people to be trained in helplessness. You need many, many counter experiences to feel like a hammer instead of a nail. So, that's the fourth thing that happens, that fast-tracking, new emotional memory, while positive experiences, which tend to predominate in the lives of most people--unfortunate exceptions, of course--those are nice. There's a quantity effect for positive experiences but a quality effect for negative ones. So, that's number four. And then last, number five: The brain is designed to be sensitized to the negative through the stress hormone cortisol that's released when we're super stressed, running for our lives from saber-toothed tigers. But also, cortisol's released when we're stuck in traffic late for a meeting, or trying to get something done and the emails keep landing in our inbox, or someone is giving us that weird look across a dinner table, or dissed us in some ways, or we're worried about something. Hormones are released like cortisol, and then cortisol goes up in the brain, sensitizes the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, so now we're more reactive to the negative, and cortisol overstimulates and gradual kills neurons in a nearby part of the brain, the hippocampus, that puts things in perspective, inhibits the amygdala, calms down the alarm bell--the hippocampus does--and the hippocampus also inhibits the hypothalamus, a nearby region of the brain, that calls for stress hormones. So, in effect, the hippocampus tells the hypothalamus, "Enough stress hormones already. We don't need any more of that stuff." Well, that creates a vicious cycle, because stress today, releasing cortisol, sensitizes the brain to the negative and weakens our capacity to bounce back to become resilient in the face of the negative, which makes us more prone to negative experiences tomorrow, which sensitizes us further and makes us even more vulnerable to negative experiences the day after tomorrow and the day after that, and so forth. And there's no comparable process of neurohormonal sensitization to the positive. We have to work more at it. And you can kind of watch those five things happening inside you.
Now, the key, of course, is to be able to watch them, to be able to observe them, and help yourself on three things. One: observe it when it's happening and step back from the process of being upset, irritated, frazzled, anxious, hurt, or blue; two, disengage from that process as fast as you can. Don't suppress it. If you go negative on negative, you just have more negative. But the trick is to step back from it and quite putting fuel on that fire. Quit looping through that resentful case against other people. Quit looping through that self-critical pounding on yourself, in part internalized from maybe your childhood. Stop doing that. And then third, you know, relatively quickly, pull out of this negative crud storm and start looking for, okay, all that negative stuff is true. Whatever's true about it is true about it. And also what's true... What are the positive things that are also true in the world around me, inside of my own character, inside of my own heart, the positive opportunities in the next moment? What can I do about this situation? What can I recognize in the bigger picture? What can I be grateful for? How can I feel loved and loving, even no matter what has happened for me today at work? You know, and then turn to those beneficial things, which are usually enjoyable, and really, really take a minute. For me, that's just a way to practice multiple times a day, any single time you do those three things, you know. Observe the upset, step back from it, second, disengage from it and stop fueling it, and third, replace the negative that you're releasing with some positive alternative to it that's authentic and legitimate. You know, every single time you do that, you know, it might take 30 seconds or three minutes, usually, or less at a time, it's not going to change your life. But the gradual accumulation of those moments of practice a few times a day, a handful of times a day, day by day by day, rather than doing what is typical for people, which is just marinating in the acid bath, if you do what I'm describing a handful of times every day, you'll feel different at the end of that particular day and you'll feel really different at the end of a week, and definitely different at the end of months of this kind of practice.
Matt: So, changing gears a little bit, but I think this ties into what you were just talking about, share with me the concept of these two wolves.
Rick: Oh, sure. This is a metaphor borrowed from a Native American teaching story, and it really speaks to the importance of what we do each day. I think people tend to focus on macro stuff, giant, you know, winning the lottery, getting the big promotion, like the huge stuff. But most of what life's about is the little stuff. So, in this teaching story, a woman is asked toward the end of your life, grandmother, "How did you become so happy? What did you do? How did you become so successful, so loved, and so wise? What did you do?" She paused and reflected and she said, "You know, I think it's because when I was young like you, I realized that in my heart were two wolves -- one of love and one of hate. And then, most important of all, I realized that everything depended upon which one I fed each day." That's the story, you know, and it speaks, of course, to the presence of the capacity, or even inclination toward, metaphorically speaking, the wolf of hate. You know, resentment, envy, ill will, aggression, even war, right? And what it also speaks to, though, more generally important, is the power of little things. In other words, we're constantly feeding the brain, in effect, one experience or another, right? And the question is, where do we rest our attention? Because neurons that fire together, that wire together, are absolutely turbocharged for what is in the field of focused attention, you know, in the larger background of conscious experience. There's lots of information processing in the nervous system that's unconscious, outside of awareness by its very nature, such as, you know, the deep software, as it were, for moving your arm to reach and pick up a cup of coffee, bring it to your lips without spilling it instead of down again. You know, we have no direct access to that underlying sensory motor software, as it were. But there's not much learning that happens, not much change, not much development or healing or growth in terms of the information flows in the nervous system that are outside of awareness. But we're designed to learn, as other animals are designed, we're designed to learn from our experiences, especially the experiences we bring focused attention to. That's, in part, one reason why it's so important to get regulation over attention, you know, rather than letting others around us grab it and pull it one way or another, or letting our attention be controlled by our habits. You know, if you think about it, the primary puppet masters in our life live inside our ears, you know, right between our ears, live inside our head, and that's where we're being controlled, you know, dragging our attention in one direction or another, much of which is negative, in terms of negative preoccupation. So, instead, I think it's really important to disengage from feeding and fueling the wolves of hate or hurt or anxiety or irrational worry or feelings of inadequacy or woulda-coulda-shoulda, second-guessing oneself, Monday morning quarterback. You know, stop feeding those wolves. If you attack those wolves, you just feed them, right? It's not about attacking them or suppressing them. It's about just not feeding them anymore, or stopping feeding them when you catch yourself feeding them. And in particular, feed the wolf pack of love or the wolf pack of resilience, grit, determination, feelings of self-worth, happiness, well-being, feelings of meaning and purpose in life, you know, taking the big picture of life into account. At the end of the lifespan, as others have pointed out, very few people think to themselves, "Damn, I should have worked more hours", "Darn, I should have improved my quarterly metrics." You know, that's not what people are thinking in the last years of their life. They're thinking about the people they've loved and the people that have loved them and the contributions that they've made and the good times that they've had and the meaning that they've been able to cultivate inside themselves, the meaning of life, sense of fulfillment in life altogether. That's what really, really matters most. So, let's feed those wolves and let's also feed the factors inside ourselves, the psychological, mental resources inside ourselves that help us feed those wolves and help us, you know, accomplish big things, helping ourselves and our career and our personal life, and helping the larger world as a result.
Matt: I think that's such an important statement, that it's not about attacking or suppressing necessarily the negative feelings or the wolf of hate, but it's about kind of... What would you say? Acknolwedging them or just accepting them?
Rick: Yeah, that's right. That's that first thing I was saying of the three practices, you know. The first one is to be with what's there, but not identify with it -- in other words, not glued to the horror show on the movie screen, but popped back 20 rows, eating popcorn, sympathetically going "Whoa, that sucks!" But just that alone! Popping out of the movie, stepping back from it, observing it mindfully, being able to name it to yourself. "Wow, I'm so irritated right now. Wow, you know, I'm obsessing about this stupid little thing. Wow." You know, knowing for yourself what's really going on. That's critically important. And then stop fueling that fire, you know. It's not about fighting it or suppressing it. You gotta feel the feelings. You gotta experience the experience, you know, including the deeper, more vulnerable, often younger layers. But that's not enough. That's not enough. A lot of people overvalue just witnessing their experience, you know. They could give you a master's thesis on their neurosis, but they're as unhappy as ever. We also need to not fuel the negative and we just need to release it, and then, in particular, grow the positive. Yeah, I find that path to be one that I walk multiple times a day. Recognize that I'm irritated or contracted or driven or feeling "ugh", glum in some way; and then, second, not fueling it any further; and then, third, as appropriate and authentic, shifting, shifting into, turning toward the positive alternative, which is where I really want to sink my roots and make my home.
Matt: Shifting the direction a little bit, Buddha's Brain...your book Buddha's Brain has an amazing and fascinating discussion of the concept of the self and whether it exists...
Rick: Uh-huh. Going hardcore, Matt! This is good!
Rick: You're not messing around here.
Matt: Oh, definitely not. We like to dig deep on the Science of Success.
Matt: But, you know, kind of the concept of the self, whether it exists, and what its true nature is. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Rick: That's a profound topic, obviously, and one that philosophers, mystics, psychologists have been really preoccupied with. I'll just say that... Maybe I'll just offer sort of the short version because it's huge. You know what I mean?
Matt: Yeah, absolutely.
Rick: For me, the short version is to, first of all, like a lot of thorny topics, get real clear about what the words mean. What do we mean by that deceptively short and simple, four-letter and one-syllable word "self", right? And I think, basically, there are two meanings of it, and it's very important to draw this distinction. The first meaning is the person altogether. You're a person, Matt. I'm a person. We're distinct from each other, you know? You're... The totality of your body-mind over time -- that's the person. It exists. It's real. It has duties. It has rights. It has responsibilities. It has moral standing. We're persons. There's no question about that. The other way, though, that the word "self" is defined is, in effect, to refer to a kind of entity inside us; a somebody looking out through our eyes; the agent of actions and owner of experiences; the "eye" behind the eyes, right? And then the question really becomes... There's no question about what the person is and the fact that persons are separate from each other, they have continuity and so forth. But is there actually such a being inside us looking through the eyes? That's a deep question. And in ordinary life, in Western...predominantly Western culture, there's an ongoing assumption that, yeah, there really is that little homunculus inside, that little entity inside. And yet if you look really closely at it in your own experience, you'll never find the complete package of the presumed eye. You will find many experiences in which there is a presumption implicit in the experience or the litte movies running inside your mind, the little inner chatter, that there is such an entity inside. You'll find presumptions of that entity and you'll often encounter a kind of sense of an eye, a sense of a subject; an intact, unified, enduring, independently arising subject somewhere inside yourself. You have a sense of it, but the sense of it is really different from it itself, and if you look closely, you'll never find the complete package. And if you look at the brain, neurologically, well, you can find a lot of localization of function for many, many things, you know, like moving your left little finger or recognizing the face of a friend or being able to comprehend language or, in other regions, produce language. There's a lot of localization of function for all kinds of things. There's no localization of function for that...for an eye inside ourselves. It's widely distributed, the neuroprocessing that supports the sense of eye, and you can do different...give people different things to do inside MRIs. And, you know, there's a lot of research literature about this. The basis for the sense of self is widely distributed in the brain and, second, it's throughout parts of the brain that do all kinds of other things, too. In order words, there's nothing special about the sense of eye, even though we feel we're so special, right?
So, what's the practical takeaway from all this? It really helps you take life less personally and move out of a contracted sense of being an ego and defending yourself or trying to glorify yourself or, you know, hold on to the status of this "me" inside, this eye inside; and instead of being so attached to the eye inside or defensive about it, taking things personally, you know, ruminating about, oh, how could you do that to me? What do you think about me? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And instead of doing that, just relax more, lighten up more, come into the fullness of your process as a person, person-ing over time, while, yeah, for sure, standing up for yourself, standing up for your person, yeah, taking responsibility as a person for your impact on others and inheriting the results of the stuff you did, good or bad, back in the day, yesterday or a year ago or when you were in college as a person, living with the results of your own actions as a person, sure. But meanwhile, you know... This is kind of summarized--I'll finish on this point--in a Southeast Aisan monk. It kind of makes more sense when you see it in writing, but you can get it just hearing it. He says, "Love yourself; just don't love your self." In other words, that's two words. And I think that summarizes a lot of teaching here. You know, stand up for yourself, but don't take life so personally.
Matt: And one of my favorite concepts relating to the self that you discuss, and I know Alan Watts has talked tremendously about this concept as well, but it's the idea that the self does not have an independent existence.
Rick: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, you know, if you think about it, everything inside ordinary reality arises due to causes. Now, maybe those causes can be traced back to arbitrary quantum-level processes in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the Big Bang, right? Okay. But at that point, after the Big Bang-ed, you know, it's been causal and deterministic inside of ordinary reality ever since. So, you know, your body arises due to causes, and those causes are, you know, embedded in 600 million years of the evolution of the nervous system, embedded in another prior three billion years of life on this planet, you know, and in a universe that's about 13.7 billion years old.
So, the takeaway from that for some people can be a sense of despair. You know, like, there's no independence. Everything is interdependently arising. And yet what seems to happen... And this goes back to what I said in the very beginning about reverse engineering awakened mind or working backwards from very, very high levels of self-actualization and trying to understand what in the world is going on in the brain of somebody who's a peak performer at work and who also has a lot of inner peace, or is deeply realized in some remarkable sense. Enlightenment is more rare than an Olympic gold medal as best we can tell throughout history, certainly over the last hundred years, and yet it's clear that there are some people who really are enlightened. And they're different, but they still have bodies, right? They still have a reptilian nervous system...brain stem. What's going on in those brains?
So, my point about all this is that as people in their own movement down the path of awakening or personal growth over time... And definitely it's a report of people, ordinary human beings like us who are awakened or close to it, that as you come more and more into the felt recognition that your person-ing over time is a local ripple in a vast network of causes, you know. You are definitely... You, the person, are a unique wave in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to be sure, and yet what's happening in your life over your life span--you know, three score and ten years or hopefully even more than 70 years altogether--your local wave of livingness, Rick-ness over time, Matt-ness over time is just a local expression of a vast ocean of causes. And when people really get that in a felt way, it often starts intellectually. You realize, yeah, that is true.
But what's the feeling of it being true? As you come more and more into the feeling of it being true, you don't get despairing and depressed; you actually get kind of ecstatic, and it's really interesting. It's joyful and peaceful and you realize, wow, man, what's happening here locally is almost entirely outside of my control. I'm just doing the best I can in this moment of waving, right, of being a wave in the middle of the ocean; trying not to hurt other waves as best I can; trying to learn and grow from the currents moving through me in this moment; trying to help useful residues stick around; you know, keep some foamy lace, keep some seaweed that's really useful for me and this wave that I am in this moment. But what happens generally is people lighten up enormously. I certainly have. People start to feel when they relax this sense of being a brick somehow in life, you know, struggling with other bricks, [INAUDIBLE 00:43:12] as they go through their days, and instead realize, wow, we're all in this together. We're all waves in a vast ocean of causes. Yeah, I'm going to take care of my wave. Yeah, I want your wave to quit stealing my parking place or mistreating me in my relationship or my job. You know, there's a place for that. But when you start to hold on to this bigger picture... My expression is: Love the wave; be the ocean. You know, when you start experiencing more and more life as the whole tapestry of causes, as the whole ocean of causes, honestly, you get less stressed. You lighten up. You get less irritated with other people, and you start getting taken more and more profoundly into an underlying, unconditional inner peace. You're not... That's the observation, clearly, of people who have deepend in this form of practice over time, and it's clearly the case of people who are reporting back to us what it's like for them to feel completely identified with the ocean altogether while also recognizing that they have a body, they have a unique personhood and personal life, but it's embedded in the felt sense of being the whole ocean.
Matt: That's so powerful and I really, really enjoy hearing that wisdom.
Rick: That's great. Well, a little bit of it's my own. Most of it's not. Most of it is stuff I'm just passing along through me. But you're right. Maybe we're finishing up here, Matt, and I'll just say that I think that it's important to deal, obviously, with the needs, the demands, the ambitions of everyday life, the situations, the issues and so forth. Okay. But then the question becomes: Are we just treading water? Or are we using these experiences to learn and grow along the way? Are we exercising our superpower, as it were, of learning along the way? And, really, the super superpower is learning how to learn along the way. Are we applying those lessons as we go? And, really, along the way, treating yourself like you matter, you know. This life is rare and precious. As best most people know, this is the only life they're ever going to have. What's the line from Mary Oliver, the poet? Tell me, what shall you do with your own wild and precious life, right? And, you know, I think... Also, I was at a commencement recently and the dean was quoting from a poet who was quoted in the memorial service for a roommate of his in college who died young, and the poem comes from Raymond Carver, who also wrote detective stories, I learned. But anyway, I think the poem is very short. It goes: Did you get what you wanted from this life even so? I did. What was it? To call myself beloved, beloved on this Earth. That's an almost exact quote, and the opening question is so profound. Did you get what you wanted from this life even so? Right? And I think it's important to do that, to not just mark time, but to actually look for opportunities to feed yourself and grow yourself from the inside out along the way.
Matt: Thank you for sharing that. That was amazing. And we'll include a link to that poem in the show notes as well.
Rick: Oh, great. It's called... I think it's called "Late Fragment". Well, hey, maybe I can finish by quoting the Buddha or...
Matt: Yeah, absolutely!
Rick: ...[INAUDIBLE 00:46:55] what the Buddha said, and it was very short and sweet. I think about this a lot and it's very central to our conversation about feeding the wolf of love and turning lots of ordinary, little experiences--you know, half a dozen of them or so over the course of the day--turning those into some kind of lasting value woven into the fabric of your nervous system. The quotation from the Buddha from the Dhammapada is: Think not lightly of good, saying, "It will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise one, gathering it little by litte, fills oneself with good.
Matt: That's awesome. As we wrap up, one last time, where can people find you online if they want to learn more, if they want to find out more about everything that you've written and all the things that you've shared?
Rick: Sure, my pleasure. Yeah, rickhanson.net. That's S-O-N, rickhanson.net. It's just a big treasure chest, honestly, of tons of freely-offered resources of various kinds. Talks, videos, slide sets and workshops, both short and long that I've taught, links to really good scientific papers in the public domain that are kind of like greatest hits, tons and tons of practical stuff. Also, I do a program online that is offered for free to anyone with financial need. Obviously, of course, if people can afford it, I'd love for them to pay for it, but it's an online program called The Foundations of Wellbeing, that is really about the fundamentals of applying positive neuroplasticity, the superpower, the "how" of self-help, applying those to growing 12 key inner strengths inside you that you can draw upon every day, hardwired into your own nervous system. So, check it out. Rickhanson--S-O-N--.net. And particularly check out this program, The Foundations of Wellbeing, that anyone can do online from anywhere in the world.
Matt: Well, Rick, this has been a fascinating interview, and I know personally, I've learned a ton, and I've really enjoyed hearing from you, so I just wanted to say thank you so much for being on the show.
Rick: Matt, it's been a pleasure and an honor, and hopefully what we've talked about will be of some use to people.