Tired of being a frequent flyer on the plane of self-doubt, judgment, denial, and blame? Me too. I spent far too many years of my life with a churning worry deep inside. I’m not smart enough, pretty enough, tall enough. I’m a fraud. As far back as I can remember, this anxiety festered inside, robbing me of joyful living. What was I so afraid of?
Well everything, and nothing in particular. Anxious dispositions have been shown in studies to have a genetic component, and many of our personal habits were unintentionally adopted into our self-concept long before our sense of choice. Unfortunately in America, much of our adolescent coming of age orbits around conforming, with little energy available to invest into discovery of self, other or authentic tribe. Our inherited ‘negativity bias’ - a tendency that kept early human ancestors alerted to potential threats in their environment - doesn’t help matters either. Our bodies, therefore, tend to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive experience, and even reinforce it. According to Rick Hanson, Ph.D., psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author “the brain is like velcro for negative experiences but teflon for positive ones. That’s why researchers have found that animals, including humans, generally learn faster from pain than pleasure.”
As a philosophy major in college, I found myself naturally drawn to life’s deep questions. Learning from great thought leaders like Aristotle, Socrates, and Thoreau, my curiosity had a place to play. Hearing the famous quote by Rene DesCartes, “Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am” installed an assumption into my personal ideology that my mind was my reality and therefore, who I was. I easily bought into this, as my thoughts felt essential to distinguishing me from another. Little did I know that this presumed separateness would perpetuate the fire of anxiety already smoldering inside.
As I moved through my twenties, thirties and forties, I continued to weave in and out of our largely expectant, ego-driven world, with my self-worth gradually eroding. The persistent fatigue I felt from the illusion and performance of fitting in was creating a stress-filled existence. On and on it went, until one day when I discovered mindfulness. This idea of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, opened my heart. I eagerly inhaled the wisdom of Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Michael Singer, and Don Miguel Ruiz. I listened to Tara Brach, Shauna Shapiro, Kristin Neff, Dave Potter, David Steidl-Rast, and many others. Slowly, a theme of values alignment and ego detachment began to emerge, and together they encouraged me to invite the Curious Observer back into the captain’s chair of my life story. I started by noticing my self-talk, labeling it for what it was, and minimizing judgment. Some days I really got it - other days it eluded my grasp. I practiced mindful meditation, compassion and self-compassion. When I noticed myself complaining, I redirected myself toward tuning into what we have in common and appreciating shared experience. It felt rickety but I was trying.
Fast forward to last November, when I experienced a breakthrough trifecta of crises. Three Tuesdays in a row, I was knocked over by an unexpected wind gust of deep-seated fear, disappointment, and rejection. For months, I cycled through anger, shame, and hopelessness, a seemingly unstoppable parade of vulnerable emotional states. “Get me off this ride” was my mind’s recurrent playlist. Constant overthinking - projecting worry into the future or ruminating over the past - became a dizzying loop of negative outcomes.
Eventually, I got tired of hiding, running in place and feeling stuck. It was time to find the lesson. I registered for Rick Hanson’s Positive Neuroplasticity Training class and started learning how to refocus my mind’s energy on “installing the good.” He reminded me that “neurons that fire together wire together and passing mental states become lasting neural traits.” What kind of steward had I been playing in the movie of my own unhappiness?
Hanson says that the 100 billion neurons in the average human brain make 5 thousand synaptic connections each with other neurons. This internal world-wide-web furnishes us with several hundred trillion little microprocessors. Learning occurs when these neurons, firing 5 to 10 times per second in synchronized patterns of activation (brainwave rhythm), begin to associate with one another. This system offers us countless opportunities to influence how our neural net is groomed.
Research shows that simply labeling with a single word a negative state of mind - pain, anxiety, irritation, disappointment - calms activity in the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain), and increases activity in the prefrontal cortex. By intentionally registering beneficial experience again and again, we can actually slant our amygdalas in a new direction, orienting our nervous system toward holding the positive rather than simply avoiding the negative. And the nervous system becomes more receptive to beneficial experiences, and more efficient at turning them into lasting changes in neural structure and function. With repeated practice, we can gradually resensitize our brains to the good. Hanson says “You can develop, over time, a joyful amygdala.” In this way, we choose to motivate ourselves to lean more into who and how we want to be.
I am learning so much from Dr. Hanson’s kind, hope-filled philosophy. Awareness of our inherited negativity bias, holding negative experience in mindful spacious awareness (to pull out of being glued to the movie), as well as our capacity to 'install' positive experiences simply by staying with them longer, has the potential to be life-enhancing for so many of us.
As I continue taking steps along this uncertain human path, I can feel myself recalibrating my brain's negative tendencies, growing inner resources, and expanding and connecting with our shared potential. More often than before, I choose to install the GOOD. And, that simply feels better.
Brother David Steidl-Rast on Happiness and Gratefulness
Brother David Steidl-Rast on a "Good Day"
The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger | Shauna Shapiro | TEDxWashingtonSquare
Hardwiring Happiness - Dr. Rick Hanson - TEDxMarin 2013
Certified Health and Lifestyle Coach, Sheryl Melanson, partners with people to transform limiting habits into mindful choices that express their values, create action plans and recalibrate their lifestyle to optimal well-being.