Rick Hanson, PH.D., with Richard Mendius, MD
…no one yet knows exactly how the brain makes the mind, or how—as Dan Siegal puts it—the mind uses the brain to make the mind. It’s sometimes said that the greatest remaining scientific questions are: What caused the Big Bang? What is the grand unified theory that integrates quantum mechanics and general relativity? And what is the relationship between mind and the brain, especially regarding conscious experience? The last question is up there with the other two because it is as difficult to answer and as important.
…It could be 350 years, and maybe longer, before we completely understand the relationship between the brain and the mind. But meanwhile, a working hypothesis is that the mind is what the brain does.
Therefore, an awakening mind means an awakening brain…
The Causes Of Suffering
Although life has many pleasures and joys, it also contains considerable discomfort and sorrow—the unfortunate side effect of three strategies that evolved to help animals, including us, pass on their genes. For sheer survival, these strategies work great, but they also lead to suffering…To summarize, whenever a strategy runs into trouble, uncomfortable—sometimes even agonizing—alarm signals pulse through the nervous system to set the animal back on track. But trouble comes all the time, since each strategy contains inherent contradictions, as the animal tries to:
Separate what is actually connected, in order to create a boundary between itself and the world
Stabilize what keeps changing, in order to maintain its internal systems within tight ranges
Hold onto fleeting pleasures and escape inevitable pains, in order to approach opportunities and avoid threats.
Most animals don’t have nervous systems complex enough to allow these strategies’ alarms to grow into significant distress. But our vastly more developed brain is fertile ground for a harvest of suffering. Only we humans worry about the future, regret the past, and blame ourselves for the present.
We get frustrated when we can’t have what we want, and disappointed when what we like ends. We suffer that we suffer. We get upset about being in pain, angry about dying, sad about waking up sad yet another day. This kind of suffering—which encompasses most of our unhappiness and dissatisfaction—is constructed by the brain. It is made up. Which is ironic, poignant—and supremely hopeful.
For if the brain is the cause of suffering, it can also be its cure.
Virtue, Mindfullness, And Wisdom
More than two thousand years ago, a young man named Siddhartha…spent many years training his mind and thus his brain. On the night of his awakening, he looked deep inside his mind…and saw there both the causes of suffering and the path to freedom from suffering. Then, for forty years, he wandered northern India, teaching all who would listen how to:
Cool the fires of greed and hatred to live with integrity
Steady and concentrate the mind to see through its confusions
Develop liberating insight
In short, he taught virtue, mindfullness…and wisdom. These are the three pillars of Buddhist practice, as well as the wellsprings of everyday well-being, psychological growth, and spiritual realization.
Virtue simply involves regulating your actions, words, and thoughts to create benefits rather than harms for yourself and others. In your brain, virtue draws on top-down direction from the prefrontal cortex (PFC)…Virtue also relies on bottom-up calming from the parasympathetic nervous system and positive emotions from the limbic system…
Mindfullness involves the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds. Since your brain learns mainly from what you attend to, mindfullness is the doorway to taking in good experiences and making them a part of yourself…
Wisdom is applied common sense, which you acquire in two steps. First, you come to understand what hurts and what helps—in other words, the causes of suffering and the path to its end…Then, based on this understanding, you let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help…As a result, over time you’ll feel more connected with everything, more serene about how all things change and end, and more able to meet pleasure and pain without grasping after the one and struggling with the other…[and} finally…what is perhaps the most seductive and subtle challenge to wisdom: the sense of being a self who is separate from and vulnerable to the world.
Regulation, Learning, And Selection
Virtue, mindfullness, and wisdom are supported by the three fundamental functions of the brain: regulation, learning, and selection. Your brain regulates itself—and other bodily systems—through a combination of excitatory and inhibitory activity: green lights and red lights. It learns through forming new circuits and strengthening or weakening existing ones. And it selects whatever experience has taught it to value; for example, even an earthworm can be trained to pick a particular path to avoid an electric shock.
Nonetheless, each pillar of practice corresponds quite closely to one of the three fundamental neural functions. Virtue relies heavily on regulation, both to excite positive inclinations and to inhibit negative ones. Mindfullness leads to new learning—since attention shapes neural circuits—and draws upon past learning to develop a steadier and more concentrated awareness. Wisdom is a matter of making choices, such as letting go of lesser pleasures for the sake of greater ones. Consequently, developing virtue, mindfullness, and wisdom in your mind depends on improving regulation, learning, and selection in your brain. Strengthening the three neural functions…thus buttresses the pillars of practice.
Inclining The Mind
When you set out on the path of awakening, you begin wherever you are…Some traditions describe this process as an uncovering of the true nature that was always present; others frame it as a transformation of your mind and body…
On the other hand, your true nature is both a refuge and a resource for the sometimes difficult work of psychological growth…It’s a remarkable fact that the people who have gone the very deepest into the mind—the sages and saints of every religious tradition—all say essentially the same thing; your fundamental nature is pure, conscious, peaceful, radiant, loving, and wise, and it is joined in mysterious ways with the ultimate underpinnings of reality, by whatever name we give That. Although your true nature may be hidden momentarially by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist. Knowing this can be a great comfort.
On the other hand, working with the mind and body to encourage the development of what’s wholesome—and the uprooting of what’s not—is central to every path of psychological…development. Even if practiced is a matter of ‘removing the obscurations’ to true nature…the clearing of these is a progressive process of training, purification, and transformation. Paradoxically, it takes time to become what we already are. [It takes time to personally actualize universal potentials]
In either case, these changes in the mind—uncovering inherent purity and cultivating wholesome qualities—reflect changes in the brain. By understanding better how the brain works and changes—ow it gets emotionally hijacked or settles into calm virtue; how it creates distractibility or fosters mindful attention; how it makes harmful choices or wise one—you can take more control of your brain, and therefore your mind…
The Evolution Of Suffering
…To make any problem better, you need to understand its causes. That’s why all the great physicians, psychologists, and spiritual teachers have been master diagnosticians. For example, in his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identified an ailment (suffering), diagnosed its cause (craving: a compelling sense of need for something), and prescribed a treatment (the Eightfold Path)….
The Evolving Brain
Life began around 3.5 billion years ago. Multicelled creatures first appeared about 650 million years ago…By the time the first jellyfish arose about 600 million years ago, animals had grown complex enough that their sensory and motor systems needed to communicate with each other; thus the beginnings of neural tissue. As animals evolved, so did their nervous systems, which slowly developed a central headquarters in the form of a brain.
Evolution builds on preexisting capabilities. Life’s progression can be seen inside your brain, in terms of what Paul MacClean (1990) referred to as the reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian levels of development…
Cortical tissues that are relatively recent, complex, conceptualizing, slow, and motivationally diffuse sit atop subcortical; and brain-stem structures that are ancient, simplistic, concrete, fast, and motivationally intense. (The subcortical region lies in the center of your brain, beneath the cortex and on top of the brain-stem; the brain stem roughly corresponds to the “reptilian brain.” As you go through your day, there’s a kind of lizard-squirrel-monkey brain in your head shaping your reactions from the bottom up.
Nonetheless, the modern cortex has great influence over the rest of the brain, and its been shaped by evolutionary pressures to develop ever-improving abilities to parent, bond, communicate, and love.
The cortex is divided up into two “hemispheres” connected by the corpus callosum. As we evolved, the left hemisphere (in most people) came into focus on sequential and linguistic processing while the right hemisphere specialized in holistic and visual processing; of course, the two halves of your brain work closely together. Many neural structures are duplicated so that there is one in each hemisphere; nonetheless, the usual convention is to refer to a structure in the singular…
Three Survival Strategies
Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, our ancestors developed three fundamental strategies for survival:
Creating separations—in order to form boundaries between themselves and the world, and between one mental state and another.
Maintaining stability—in order to keep physical and mental systems in a healthy balance.
Approaching opportunities and avoiding threats—in order to gain things that promote offspring, and escaping or resisting things that don’t.
These strategies have been extraordinarily effective for survival. But Mother Nature doesn’t care how they feel. To motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow these strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. Unfortunately these conditions happen all the time, because:
Everything is connected.
Everything keeps changing.
Opportunities routinely remain unfulfilled or lose their luster, and many threats are inescapable (aging and death).
Not So Separate
The parietal lobes of the brain are located in the upper back of the head (a ‘lobe’ is a rounded swelling of the cortex). For most people, the left lobe establishes that the body is distinct from the world, and the right lobe indicates where the body is compared to features in its environment. The result is an automatic, underlying assumption along the lines of I am separate and independent. Although this is true in some ways, in many important ways it is not.
Not So Distinct
To live, an organism must metabolize: it must exchange matter and energy with its environment. Consequently, over the course of a year, many of the atoms in you body are replaced with new ones. The energy you use to get a drink of water comes from sunshine working its way up to you through the food chain—in a real sense, light lifts the cup to your lips. The apparent wall between you body and the world is more like a picket fence.
And between your mind and the world, it’s like a line painted on the sidewalk. Language and culture enter and pattern your mind from the moment of birth. Empathy and love naturally attune you to other people, so your mind moves into resonance with theirs. These flows of mental activity go both ways as you influence others.
Within your mind, there are hardly any lines at all. All its contents flow into each other, sensations becoming thoughts feelings desires actions and more sensations. This stream of consciousness correlates with a cascade of fleeting neural assemblies, each assembly dispersing into the next one, often in less than a second.
Not So Independent
…Most of the atoms in your body—including the oxygen in your lungs and the iron in your blood—were born inside a star. In the early universe, hydrogen was just about the only element. Stars are giant fusion reactors that pound together hydrogen atoms, making heavier elements and releasing lots of energy in the process. The ones that went supernova spread their contents far and wide. By the time our solar system started to form, roughly nine billion years after the universe began, enough large atoms existed to make our planet, to make the hands that hold this book and the brain that understands these words. Truly, you’re here because a lot of stars blew up. Your body is made of stardust.
Your mind also depends on countless preceding causes. Think of life events and people that have shaped your views, personality, and emotions. Imagine having been switched at birth and raised by poor sharecropers in Kenya or a wealthy oil family in Texas; how different would your mind be today?
The Suffering Of Separation
Since we are each connected and interdependent with the world, our attempts to be separate and independent are regularly frustrated, which produces painful signals of disturbance and threat. Further, even when our efforts are temporarily successful, they still lead to suffering. When you regard the world as ‘not me at all,’ it is potentially unsafe, leading you to fear and resist it. Once you say, ‘I am this body apart from the world,’ the body’s frailties become your own. If you think it weighs too much or doesn’t look right, you suffer. If it’s threatened by illness, aging, and death—as all bodies are—you suffer.
Not So Permanent
Your body, brain and mind contain vast numbers of systems that must maintain a healthy equilibrium. The problem, though, is that changing conditions disturb these systems, resulting in signals of threat, pain, and distress—in a word, suffering.
We Are Dynamically Changing Systems
Let’s consider a single neuron, one that releases the neurotransmitter serotonin. This tiny neuron is both part of the nervous system and a complex system in its own right that requires multiple subsystems to keep it running. When it fires, tendrils at the end of its axon expel a burst of molecules into the synapses—the connections—it makes with other neurons. Each tendril contains about two hundred little bubbles called vesicles that are full of he neurotransmitter serotonin. Every time the neuron fires, five to ten vesicles spill open. Since a typical neuron fires around ten times a second, the serotonin vesicles of each tendril are emptied out every few seconds.
Consequently, busy little molecule machines must either manufacture new serotonin or recycle loose serotonin floating around the neuron. Then they need to build vesicles, fill them with serotonin, and move them close to where the action is, at the tip of each tendril. That’s a lot of processes to keep in balance, with many things that could go wrong—and serotonin metabolism is just one of the thousands of systems in your body…
The Challenges Of Maintaining Equilibrium
For you to stay healthy, each system in your body and mind must balance two conflicting needs. On the one hand it must remain open to inputs during ongoing transactions with its local environment; closed systems are dead systems. On the other hand, each system must also preserve a fundamental stability, staying centered around a good set-point and within certain ranges—not too hot, nor too cold. For example, inhibition from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and arousal from the limbic system must balance each other: too much inhibition and you feel numb inside, too much arousal and you feel overwhelmed.
Signals Of Threat
To keep your systems in balance, sensors register its state (as the thermometer does inside a thermostat) and send signals to regulators to restore equilibrium if the system gets out of range…But some signals for corrective action are so important that they bubble up into consciousness. For example, if your body gets too cold, you feel chilled; if it gets too hot, you feel like you’re baking.
These consciously experienced signals are unpleasant, in part because they carry a sense of threat—a call to restore equilibrium before things slide too far too fast down the slippery slope. The call may come softly, with a sense of unease, or loudly with alarm, even panic. However it comes, it mobilizes your brain to do whatever it takes to get you back in balance.
This mobilization usually comes with feelings of craving; these range from quiet longings to a desperate sense of compulsion. It is interesting that the word for craving in Pali—the language of early Buddhism—is tanha, the root of which means thirst. The word “thirst” conveys the visceral power of threat signals, even when they have nothing to do with life or limb, such as the possibility of being rejected. Threat signals are effective precisely because they’re unpleasant—because they make you suffer, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. You want them to stop.
Everything Keeps Changing
Occasionally, threat signals do stop for a while—just as long as every system stays in balance. But since the world is always changing, there are endless disturbances in the equlibria of your body, mind, and relationships. The regulators of the systems of your life from the molecular bottom all the way up to the interpersonal top, must keep trying to impose static order on inherently unstable processes.
Consider the impermanence of the physical world, from the volatility of quantum particles to our own Sun, which will someday swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth. Or considers the turbulence of your nervous systems: for example, regions of the PFC that support consciousness are updated five to eight times a second.
This neurological instability underlies all states of mind. For example, every thought involves a momentary partitioning of streaming neural traffic into a coherent assembly of synapses that must soon disperse into fertile disorder to allow other thoughts to emerge. Observe even a single breath, and you will experience its sensations changing, dispersing, and disappearing soon after they arise.
Everything changes. That’s the universal nature of outer reality and inner experience. Therefore, there’s no end to disturbed equilibria as long as you live. But to help you survive, your brain keeps trying to stop the river, struggling to hold dynamic systems in place, to find fixed patterns in the variable world, and to construct permanent plans for changing conditions. Consequently, your brain is forever chasing after the moment that has just past, trying to understand and control it.
It’s as if we live at the edge of a waterfall, with each moment rushing at us—experienced only and always now at the lip—and then zip, it’s over the edge and gone. But the brain is forever clutching at what has just surged by.
Not So Pleasant Or Painful
In order to pass on their genes, our animal ancestors had to choose correctly many times a day whether to approach something or avoid it. Today, humans approach and avoid mental states as well as physical objects; for example, we pursue self-worth and push away shame. Nonetheless, for all its sophistication, human approaching and avoiding draws on much the same neural circuitry used by a monkey to look for bananas or a lizard to hide under a rock.
The Feeling Tone Of Experience
How does your brain decide if something should be approached or avoided? Let’s say you’re walking in the woods; you round a bend and suddenly see a curvy shape on the ground right smack in front of you. To simplify a complex process, during the first few tenths of a second, light bouncing off this curved object is sent to other occipital cortex…for processing into a meaningful image. Then the occipital cortex sends representations of this image in two directions: to the hippocampus, for evaluation as a potential threat or opportunity, and to the PFC and other parts of the brain for more sophisticated—and time-consuming—analysis.
Just in case, your hippocampus immediately compares the image to its short list of jump-first-think-later dangers. It quickly finds curvy shapes on its danger list, causing it to send a high-priority alert to the amygdala: “Watch out!” The amygdala—which is like an alarm bell—then pulses both a general warning throughout your brain and a special fast-track signal to your flight-or-fight neural and hormonal systems…
Meanwhile, the powerful but relatively slow PF has been pulling information out of long-term memory to figure out whether the darn thing is a snake or a sticks. As a few more seconds tick by, the PFC zeros in on the object’s inert nature—and the fact that several people ahead of you walked past it without saying anything—and concludes that it’s only a stick.
Throughout this episode, everything you experienced was either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. At first there were neutral or pleasant sights as you strolled along the path, then unpleasant fear at a potential snake, and finally pleasant relief at the realization that it was just a stick. That aspect of experience—whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral—is called, in Buddhism, its feeling tone (or, in Western psychology, its hedonic tone). The feeling tone is produced mainly by your amygdala and then broadcast widely. It’s a simple but effective way to tell your brain as a whole what to do each moment: approach pleasant carrots, avoid unpleasant sticks, and move on from anything else.
Two major systems keep you chasing carrots. The first system is based on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine-releasing neurons become more active when you encounter things that are linked to rewards in the past—for example, if you get a message from a good friend you haven’t seen in a few months. These neurons rev up when you encounter something that could offer rewards in the future—such as your friend saying she wants to take you to lunch. In your mind, this neural activity produces a motivating sense of desire: you want to call her back. When you do have lunch, a part of your brain called the cingulate cortex (about the size of your finger, on the interior edge of each hemisphere) tracks whether the rewards you expect—fun with your friend, good food—actually arrived. If they do, dopamine levels stay steady. But if you’re disappointed—maybe your friend is in a bad mood—the cingulate sends out a signal that lowers dopamine levels. Falling dopamine registers in subjective experience as an unpleasant feeling tone—a dissatisfaction and discontent—that stimulates craving (broadly defined) for something that will restore its levels.
The second system, based on several other neurotransmitters, is the biochemical source of the pleasant feeling tones that come from the actual—and anticipated—carrots of life. When these ‘pleasure chemicals’—natural opoids (including endorphins), oxytocin, and norepinephrine—surge into your synapses, they strengthen the neural circuits that are active, making them more likely to fire together in the future. Imagine a toddler trying to eat a spoonful of pudding. After many misses, his perceptual-motor neurons finally get it right, leading to wavers of pleasure chemicals which help cement the synaptic connections that created the specific movements that slipped the spoon into his mouth.
In essence, this pleasure system highlights whatever triggered it, prompts you to pursue those rewards again and strengthen the behaviors that make you successful in getting them. It works hand in hand with the dopamine-based system. For example, slaking your thirst feels good both because the discontent of low dopamine leaves, and because the pleasure chemical—based joy of cool water on a hot day arrives…
Sticks Are Stronger Than Carrots
So far, we’ve discussed carrots and sticks as if they were equals. But actually, sticks are usually more powerful, since your brain is built more for avoiding than for approaching. That’s because it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival.
For example, imagine our mammalian ancestors dodging dinosaurs in a worldwide Jurassic Park 70 million years ago. Constantly looking over their shoulders, alert to the slightest crackle of brush, ready to freeze or bolt or attack depending on the situation. The quick and the dead. If they missed out on a carrot—a chance for food or mating, perhaps—they usually had other opportunities later. But if they failed to duck a stick—like a predator—then they’d probably be killed, with no chance at any carrots in the future. The ones that lived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to negative experiences.
Let’s explore six ways your brain keeps you dodging sticks.
Vigilance And Anxiety
When you’re awake and not doing anything in particular, the baseline resting state of your brain activates a “default network” and one of its functions seems to be tracking you environment and body for possible threats. This basic awareness is often accompanied by a background feeling of anxiety that keeps you vigilant. Try walking through a store for a few minutes without the least whiff of caution, unease, or tension. It’s very difficult. This makes sense because our mammalian, primate, and human ancestors were prey as well as predators. In addition, most primate social groups have been full of aggression from males and females alike. And in the hominid and then human hunter-gatherer bands of the past couple million years, violence has been a leading cause of death for men. We become anxious for good reason: there was a lot to fear.
Sensitivity To Negative Information
The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. Take facial expressions, a primary signal of threat or opportunity for a social animal like us: fearful faces are perceived much more rapidly than happy or neutral ones, probably fast-tracked by the amygdala. In fact, even when researchers make fearful faces invisible to conscious awareness, the amygdala lights up. The brain is drawn to bad news.
When an event is flagged as negative, the hippocampus makes sure it’s stored carefully for future reference. Once burned, twice shy. Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones—even though most of your experiences are probably neutral or positive.
Negative Trumps Positive
Negative events generally have more impact than positive ones. For example, it’s easy to acquire feelings of learned helplessness from a few failures, but hard to undo those feeling, even with many successes. People will do more to avoid a loss than to acquire a comparable gain. Compared to lottery winners, accident victims usually take longer to return to their original baseline of happiness. Bad information about a person carries more weight than good information, and in relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one.
Even if you’ve unlearned a negative experience, it still leaves an indelible trace in your brain. That residue lies waiting, ready to reactivate if you ever encounter a fear-provoking event like the previous one.
Negative experiences create vicious cycles by making you pessimistic, overreactive, and inclined to go negative yourself.
Avoiding Involves Suffering
As you can see, your brain has a build-in “negativity bias” that primes you for avoidance. This bias makes you suffer in a variety of ways. For starters, it generates an unpleasant background of anxiety, which for some people can be quite intense; anxiety also makes it harder to bring attention inward for self-awareness or contemplative practice, since the brain keeps scanning to make sure there is no problem. The negativity bias fosters or intensifies other unpleasant emotions, such as anger, sorrow, depression, guilt, and shame. It highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles. Consequently, the mind continually tends to render unfair verdicts about a persons character, conduct, and possibilities. The weight of those judgments can really wear you down.
In The Simulator
In Buddhism, it’s said that suffering is the result of craving expressed through the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. These are strong, traditional terms that cover a broad range of thoughts, words, and deeds, including the most fleeting and subtle. Greed is a grasping after carrots, while hatred is an aversion to sticks; both involve craving more pleasure and less pain. Delusion is a holding onto ignorance about the way things really are—for example, not seeing how they’re connected and changing.
Sometimes these poisons are conspicuous; much of the time, however, they operate in the background of your awareness, firing and wiring quietly along. They do this by using your brain’s extraordinary capacity to represent both inner experience and the outer world. For example, the blind spots in your left and right visual fields don’t look like holes out there in the world; rather, your brain fills them in, much like photo software shades in the red eyes of people looking toward a flash. In fact, much of what you see “out there” is actually manufactured “in here” by your brain, painted in like computer-generated graphics in a movie. Only a small fraction of the inputs to your occipital lobe comes directly from the external world; the rest comes from internal memory stores and perceptual-processing modules. Your brain simulates the world—each of us lives in a virtual reality that’s close enough to the real thing that we don’t bump into the furniture.
Inside this simulator—whose neural substrate appears to be centered in the upper-middle of your PFC—minimovies run constantly. These brief clips are the building blocks of much conscious activity. For our ancestors, running simulations of past events promoted survival, as it strengthened the learning of successful behaviors by repeating their neural firing patterns. Simulating future events also promoted survival, as it strengthened the learning of successful behaviors by repeating their neural firings. Simulating future events also promoted survival by enabling our ancestors to compare possible outcomes –in order to pick the best approach—and to ready potential sensory-motor sequences for immediate action. Over the past three million years, the brain tripled in size; much of this expansion has improved the capacities of the simulator, suggesting its benefits for survival…
Simulations Make You Suffer
The brain continues to produce simulations today, even when they have nothing to do with staying alive. Watch yourself daydream or go back over a relationship problem, and you’ll see the clips playing—little packets of simulated experiences, usually just seconds long. If you observe them closely, you’ll spot several troubling things:
By its very nature, the simulator pulls you out of the present moment. There you are, following a presentation at work, running an errand, or meditating, and suddenly your mind is a thousand miles away, caught up in a mini-movie. But it’s only in the present moment that we find real happiness, love, or wisdom.
In the simulator, pleasures usually seem pretty great, whether you’re considering a second cupcake or imagining a response you’ll get to a report at work. But what do you actually feel when you reenact the mini-movie in real life? Is it as pleasant as promised up there on the screen? Usually not. In truth, most everyday rewards aren’t as intense as those conjured up in the simulator.
Clips in the simulator contain lots of beliefs: Of course he’ll say X if I say Y…It’s obvious that they let me down. Sometimes these are explicitly verbalized, but much of the time they’re implicit, built into the plotting. In reality, are the implicit and explicit beliefs in your simulations true? Sometimes yes, but often no. Mini-movies keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have. It’s like being a zoo animal that’s released into a large park—yet still crouches withing the confines of its old pen.
In the simulator, upsetting events from the past play again and again, which unfortunately strengthens the neural associations between an event and its painful feelings. The simulator also forecasts threatening situations in your future. But in fact, most of those worrisome events never materialize. And of the ones that do, often the discomfort you experience is milder and briefer than predicted. For example, imagine speaking from your heart; this may trigger a mini-movie ending in rejection and you feeling bad. But in fact, when you do speak from the heart, doesn’t it typically go pretty well, with you ending up feeling quite good?
In sum, the simulator take you out of the present moment and sets you chasing after carrots that aren’t really so great while ignoring more important rewards (such as contentment and inner peace). Besides reinforcing painful emotions, they have you ducking sticks that never actually come your way or aren’t really all that bad. And the simulator does this hour after hour, day after day, even in your dreams—steadily building neural structures, much of which adds to your suffering.
Each person suffers sometimes, and many people suffer a lot. Compassion is a natural response to suffering, including your own. Self-compassion isn’t self-pity, but it is simply warmth, concern, and good wishes—just like compassion for another person. Because self-compassion is more emotional than self-esteem, it’s actually more powerful for reducing the impact of difficult conditions, preserving self-worth, and building resilience. It also opens your heart, since when you’re closed to your own suffering it’s hard to be receptive to the suffering of others.
In addition to the everyday suffering of life, the path of awakening itself contains difficult experiences which also call for compassion. To become happier, wiser, and more loving, sometimes you have to swim against ancient currents within your nervous system. For example, in some ways the three pillars of practice seem unnatural: virtue restrains emotional reactions that worked well in the Serengeti, mindfullness decreases external vigilance and wisdom cuts through beliefs that once helped us survive. It goes against the evolutionary template to undo the causes of suffering, to feel one with all things, to flow with the changing moment, and to remain unmoved by pleasant and unpleasant alike.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it! It just means we should understand what we’re up against and have some compassion for ourselves.
To nurture self-compassion and strengthen its neural circuits:
Recall being with someone who really loves you—the feeling of receiving caring activates the deep attachment system circuitry in your brain, priming it to give compassion.
Bring to mind someone you naturally feel compassion for, such as a child or a person you love—this easy flow of compassion arouses its neural underpinnings (including oxytocin, the insula [which senses the internal state of your body], and the PFC), “warming them up” for self-compassion.
Extend this same compassion to yourself—be aware of your own suffering and extend concern and good wishes toward yourself; sense compassion sifting down into raw places inside, falling like a gentle rain that touches everything. The actions related to a feeling strengthen it, soplace your palm on your cheek or heart with the tenderness and warmth you’d give a hurt child. Say phrases in your mind such as May I be happy again. May the pain of this moment pass.
Overall, open to the sense that you are receiving compassion—deep down in your brain, the actual source of good feelings doesn’t matter much; whether the compassion is from you or from another person, let your sense of being soothed and cared for sink in.
The First and Second Dart
Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.
–Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Some physical discomfort is unavoidable; its a crucial signal to take action to protect life and limb, like the pain that makes you pull your hand back from a hot stove. Some mental discomfort is inevitable, too. For example, as we evolved, growing emotional investments in children and other members of the band motivated our ancestors to keep those carriers of their genes alive; understandably, then, we feel distress when dear ones are threatened and sorrow when they are harmed. We also evolved to care greatly about our place in the band and in the hearts of others, so it’s normal to feel hurt if you’re rejected or scorned.
To borrow an expression from the Buddha, inescapable physical or mental discomfort is the “first dart” of existence. As long as you live and love, some of those darts will come your way.
The Dart We Throw Ourselves
First darts are unpleasant to be sure. But then we add our reactions to them. These reactions are “second darts”—the ones we throw ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from the second darts.
Suppose you’re walking through a dark room at night and stub you toe on a chair; right after the first dart of pain comes a second dart of anger: “Who moved that darn chair?” Or maybe a loved one is cold to you when you’re hoping for some caring; in addition to the natural drop in the pit of you stomach (first dart), you might feel unwanted (second dart) as a result of having been ignored as a child.
Second darts often trigger more second darts through associative neural networks: you might feel guilt about your anger that someone moved the chair, or sadness that you feel hurt yet again by someone you love. In relationships, second darts create vicious cycles; your second dart reactions from the other person, which set off more second darts from you, and so on.
Remarkably, most of our second-dart reactions occur when there is in fact no first dart anywhere to be found—when there’s no pain inherent in the conditions we’re reacting to. We add suffering to them.
For example, sometimes I’ll come home from work and the house will be a mess, with the kid’s stuff all over. That’s the condition. Is there a dart in the coats and shoes on the sofa or the clutter covering the counter? No, there isn’t; no one dropped a brick on me or hurt my children. Do I have to get upset? Not really. I could ignore the stuff, pick it up calmly, or talk with them about it. Sometimes I manage to handle it that way. But if I don’t, then the second darts start landing, tipped with the Three Poisons: greed, makes me rigid about how I want things to be, hatred gets me all bothered and angry, and delusion tricks me into taking the situation personally.
Saddest of all, some second-dart reactions are to conditions that are actually positive. If someone pays you a compliment, that’s a positive situation. But then you might start thinking, with some nervousness and even a little shame: Oh, I’m not really that good a person. Maybe they’ll find out I’m a fraud. Right there, needless second-dart suffering begins.
Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied: you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you to see it increasingly as an impersonal condition—unpleasant to be sure, but not worth getting upset about, which would just bring more second darts.
Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Let’s unscramble this alphabet soup to see how it all works. While the SNS and the HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they’re best described together, as an integrated system. And we’ll focus on reactions dominated by an aversion to sticks (e.g., fear, anger) rather than a grasping for carrots, since aversive reactions usually have a bigger reaction to the negativity bias of the brain.
Alarms Go Off
Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones since psychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain; this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event—such as giving a talk next week—can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions:
The thalamus—the relay station in the middle of you brain—sends a “Wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain.
The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing.
The hypothalamus—the brain’s primary regulator of the endocrine system—prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones” epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.
Ready For Action
Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words you’re at least a little upset. What’s going on in your body?
Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange—enabling you to hit harder or run faster.
Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways. First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdala further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system—which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol.
Reproduction is sidelined—no time for sex when you’re running for cover. The same for digestion: salivation decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated.
Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger.
As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It’s like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of other’s intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening care thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you’re upset and your thoughts about it later when you’re calmer.
In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what’s the cost of this today, with the chronic low-grade stresses of modern life?
Life On Simmer
Getting fired up for good reason—such as becoming passionate and enthusiastic, handling emergencies, or being forceful for a good cause—definitely has its place in life. But second darts are a bad reason to light up the SNS/HPAA system, and if they become routine, they can push the needle on your personal stress meter into the red zone. Further, apart from your individual situation, we live in a pedal-to-the-medal society that relies on nonstop SNS/HPAA activation; unfortunately, this is completely unnatural in terms of our evolutionary template.
For all of these reasons, most of us experience ongoing SNS/HPAA arousal. Even if your pot isn’t boiling over, just simmering along with second-dart activation is quite unhealthy. It continually shunts resources away from long-term projects—such as building a strong immune system or preserving a good mood—in favor of short-term crises. And this has lasting consequences.
In our evolutionary past, when most people died by forty or so, the short-term benefits of SNS/HPAA activation outweighed its long term costs. But for people today who are interested in living well during their forties and beyond, he accumulating damage of an overheated life is a real concern. For example, chronis SNS/HPAA stimulation disturbs these systems and increases risks for the health problems listed:
–Gastrointestinal; ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation
–Immune; more frequent colds and flus, slower wound healing, greater vulnerability to serious infections
–Cardiovascular; hardening of the arteries, heart attacks
–Endocrine; type II diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, erectile dysfunction, lowered libido.
For all their effects on the body, second-darts usually have their greatest impact on psychological well-being. Let’s see how they work in your brain to raise anxiety and lower mood.
Repeated SNS/HPAA activity makes the amygdala more reactive to apparent threats, which in turn increases SNS/HPAA activation, which sensitizes the amygdala further. The mental correlate of this physical preocess is an increasingly rapid arousal of state anxiety (anxiety based on specific situations).
Additionally, the amygdala helps form implicit memories (traces of past experiences that exist beneath conscious awareness); as it becomes more sensitized, it increasingly shades those residues with fear, thus intensifying trait anxiety (ongoing anxiety reagardless of the situation).
Meanwhile, frequent SNS/HPAA activation wears down the hippocampus, which is vital for forming explicit memories—clear records of what actually happened. Cortisol and related glucocorticoid hormones both weaken existing synaptic connections in the hippocampus and inhibit the formation of new ones. Further, the hippocampus in one of the few regions in the human brain that can actually grow new neurons-yet glucocorticoids prevent the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, imparing its ability to produce new memories.
It’s a bad combination for the amygdala to be oversensitized while the hippocampus is compromized; painful experiences can then be recorded in implicit memory—with all the distortions and turbo-charging of an amygdala on overdrive—without an accurate explicit memory of them. This might feel like: Something happened, I’m not sure what, but I’m really upset. This may help explain why victims of trauma can feel disociated from the awful things they experienced, yet be very reactive to any trigger that reminds them unconsciously of what once occurred. In less extreme situations, the one-two punch of a revved-up amygdala and a weakened hippocampus can lead to feeling a little upset a lot of the time without exactly knowing why.
Routine SNS/HPAA activation undermines the biochemical basis of an even-keeled—let alone cheerful—disposition in a number of ways:
–Norepinephrine helps you feel alert and mentally energetic, but glucocorticoid hormones deplete it. Reduced norepinephrine may cause you to feel flat—even apathetic—with poor concentration; these are classic symptoms of depression.
–Over time, glucocorticoids lower the production of dopamine. This leads to a loss of enjoyment of activitiess once found pleasurable; another classic criterion of depression.
–Stress reduces serotonin, probably the most important neurotransmitter for maintaining a good mood. When serotonin drops, so does norepinephrine, which has already been diminished by glucocorticoids. In short, less serotonin means more vulnerability to a blue mood and less alert interest in the world.
An Intimate Process
Of course, our experience of these physiological processes is very intimate. When I’m upset, I sure dont think about all of these biochemical details. But having a general idea of them in the back of my mind helps me appreciate the sheer physicality of a second dart cascade, its impersonal nature and dependence on preceeding causes, and its impermanence.
This understanding is hopeful and motivating. Suffering has clear cause in your brain and body, so if you change its causes you’ll suffer a lot less. And you can change those causes. From this point on, we’re going to focus on how to do just that.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
So far, we’ve examined how reactions powered by greed and hatred—especially the latter—ripple throgh your brain and body, shaped by the sympathetic nervous system. But the SNS is just one of the three wings of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which operates mostly below the level of consciousness to regulate many bodily systems and their responses to changing conditions. The other two wings of the ANS are the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the enteric nervous system (which regulates your gastrointestinal system). Let’s focus on the PNS and SNS as they play crucial roles in your suffering—and its end.
The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. It produces a feeling of relaxation, often with a sense of contentment—this is why it’s something called the “rest-and-digest” system, in contrast to the “fight-or-flight” SNS. These two wings of the ANS are connected like a seesaw; when one goes up, the other goes down.
Parasympathetic activation is the normal resting state of your body, brain, and mind. If your SNS were surgically disconnected, you’d stay alive (though you wouldn’t be very useful in an emergency).
If your PNS were disconnected, however, you’d stop breathing and soon die. Sympathetic activation is a change to the baseline of PNS equilibrium in order to respond to a threat or an opportunity. The cooling, steadying influence of the PNS helps you think clearly and avoid hot-headed actions that would harm you or others. The PNS also quiets the mind and fosters tranquility, which supports comtemplative insight.
The Big Picture
The PNS and SNS evolved hand in hand in order to keep animals—including humans—alive in potentially lethal environments. We need both of them.
For example, take five breaths, inhaling and exhaling a little more fully than usual. This is both energizing and relaxing, actvating first the sympathetic system and then the parasympathetic one, back and forth, in a gentle rhythm. Notice how you feel when you’re done. That combination of aliveness and centeredness is the essence of peak performance zone recognized by athletes, busnesspeople, artists, lovers, and meditators. It’s the result of the SNS and PNS, the gas pedal and the brakes, working in harmony together.
Happiness, love, and wisdom aren’t furthered by shutting down the SNS, but rather by keeping the autonomic nervous system as a whole in an optimal state of balance:
–Mainly parasympathetic arousal for a baseline of ease and peacefulness
–Mild SNS activation for enthusiasm, vitality, and wholesome passions
–Occasional SNS spikes to deal with demanding situations, from a great opportunity at work to a late-night call from a teenage who needs a ride home from a party gone bad.
This is your best-odds prescription for a long, productive life. Of course, it takes practice.
A Path Of Practice
As the saying goes, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. If you can simply stay present with whatever is arising in awareness—whether it’s a first dart or a second one—without reacting further, then you will break the chain of suffering right there. Over time, through training and shaping your mind and brain, you can even change what arises, increasing what’s positive and decreasing what’s negative. In the meantime, you can rest in and be nourished by a growing sense of the peace and clarity in your true nature.
These three processes—being with whateve arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and takng refuge in the ground of being—are the essential practices of the path of awakening. In many ways they correspond, respectively, to mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom—and to the three fundamental nerual fuctions of learning, regulating, and selecting.
As you deal with different issues on your path of awakening, you’ll repeatedly encounter these stages of growth:
–Stage one—you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and don’t even realize it; your partner forgets to bring mild home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.
–Stage two—you realize you’ve been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself; internally you’re squirming, but you can’t stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.
–Stage three—some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out; you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.
–Stage four—the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue; you understand that there’s no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.
In education, these are known succinctly as unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, and unconscious competence. They’re uselful labels for knowing where you are with a given issue. The second stage is the hardest one, and often where we want to quit. So it’s important to keep aiming for the third and fourth stages—just keep at it and you’ll definitely get there!
It takes effort and time to clear old structures and build new ones. I call this the law of little things; although little moments of greed, hatred, and delusion have left residues of suffering in your mind and brain, lots of little moments of practice will replace these Three Poisons and the suffering they cause with happines, love, and wisdom.