(A) not in fact laws of nature (huh? how rude!),
(B) causing me to bang my head against a wall that wasn't budging, and
(C) creating issues with others.
So it was lose-lose-lose all the way around. Yet when I started disengaging from my "shoulds," I lightened up, got more realistic about what was really possible, and better understood the perspectives of others. Thus this week's practice: drop the "shoulds."
Honor Your Body
Of course, that doesn't mean dropping wholesome aims - just not getting rigid and driven about them. One aim I've grudgingly but eventually come around to is to honor your body. If you want a summary of the ten best ways I know to support your own brain, check out the slide set and talks from the Your Best Brain workshop I taught with Jan Hanson, M.S., L.Ac., (my wife) who wrote the Nutritional Neurochemistry appendix in Buddha's Brain. Jan explains how you can use research-based methods that don't involve prescription medications to protect and build the neurotransmitter systems that lift mood, calm anxiety, and sharpen attention and memory. I talk about using the mind to weave strengths into the brain. (No surprise, most people wanted to talk with Jan after the workshop, not me!)
Drop the Shoulds
WHY?One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and without thinking sliced right through the rose - a disaster for this little girl. "I shoulda had the rose!" she yelled. "I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!" Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had, just HAD to get the whole rose.
But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules - "shoulds," "musts," and "gottas" - then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others - even a whole birthday party. At bottom, "shoulds" are not about events. They're about what you want to experience (especially emotions and sensations) if your demands on reality are met, or what you fear you'll experience if they're not. Whether your "shoulds" are shaped by neural programs laid down when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or when you were in grade school, they often operate unconsciously or barely semi-consciously - all the more powerfully for lurking in the shadows. Plus, in a deep sense, your "shoulds" control you. (I'm not talking here about healthy principles and desires, which you're more able to reflect about and influence.) Imagine what it would be like to drop your "shoulds" in an upsetting situation or relationship. What's this feel like? Probably relaxing, easing, and freeing.
It's natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn't, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals.
You can and will continue to pursue wholesome aims in wholesome ways. But this time no longer chained to “shoulds.”
As you explore the suggestions below, keep in mind that you can still behave ethically and assert yourself appropriately. Not one word in this JOT is about harming yourself or others, or being a doormat. Bring to mind some situation or relationship that's bothering you. Find a central "should" in your reactions to it, like "that can't happen," or "this must happen," or "they can't treat me this way," or "I couldn't stand ____ ," or "you must ____ ." Notice that the "should" is a statement about reality, the way it is.
Then, facing this "should," ask yourself a question: "Is it really true?" Let the answer reverberate inside you. You could find that in fact the "should" is not true. Good things we "must" have - even a pink rose made of sugar and butter - often fail to arrive. And bad things that "must" not happen often do. I don't mean that we ought to let others off the moral hook or give up on making the world better. I mean that when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it.
This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with "the thing-in-itself." Which feels clear, peaceful, and free. Consider again the situation or relationship that bothers you, and this time try to find an even deeper "should" that's related to an experience you "must" have or avoid, such as "I'll be so embarrassed if I have to give a talk," or "I can't stand to be alone," or "I must feel successful." Then, facing this "should," ask yourself a question: "Is it really true?" You'll probably find that you could indeed bear the worst possible experience that would come if your "should" were violated. I'm not trying to minimize or dismiss how awful it might feel. But the adamancy, the insistence, built into a "should" is usually not true: you would live through the experience and get to the other side - and eventually other, better experiences would come to you.
Most of us are so much more resilient, so much more capable, so much more surrounded by good things to draw upon, so much more contributing and loving than we think we are! Also, consider the situation or relationship through the eyes of the others involved. Ask yourself if the things you think are imperatives, mandates, rules, necessities, etc. are like that for others. Probably not. And flip it around: what "shoulds" are alive in the minds of others . . . that you are violating. Yikes! When I think about this applied to situations I get cranky about, it's very humbling. A final thought: dropping the "shoulds" exposes you to a sense of vulnerability to life and the difficult feelings that come with it - and that can be hard. We use "shoulds" to try to hold at bay the pain and loss we all do or will inevitably face in full measure (some of course more than others). Yet the pain and loss that do come will come regardless of our "musts" and "can'ts" - which only delude us into thinking that this tissue of rules will somehow hold back life's tide.
Paradoxically, by opening to this tide as it runs in your life - a deeper truer reality than can ever be contained by the nets of thought - you both reduce the uncomfortable friction imposed by "shoulds" upon those currents and increase your sense of opening out into and being lifted and carried by life's beautiful stream.
How did we evolve the most loving brain on the planet?
On the one hand, we have the greatest capacities for empathy, communication, friendship, romance, complex social structures, and altruism. On the other, we have the greatest capacities for shaming, emotional cruelty, sadism, envy, jealousy, discrimination and other forms of dehumanization, and wholesale slaughter of our fellow humans.
In other words, to paraphrase a Native American teaching, a wolf of love and a wolf of hate live in the heart of every person.
Many factors shape each of these two wolves, including biological evolution, culture, economics, and personal history. Here, I'd like to comment on key elements of the neural substrate of bonding and love; in next week's blog, I'll write about the evolution of aggression and hate; then, in the next several posts, we'll explore the crucial skill of empathy, perhaps the premier way to feed the wolf of love.
Evolution The growing length of childhood coevolved with the enlarging of the brain - which has tripled in size over the last 2.5 million years, since the time of the first tool-making hominids - and with the development of complex bonding, which includes friendship, romantic love, parent-child attachment, and loyalty to a group.
As the brain grew bigger, childhood needed to be longer since there was so much to learn. To keep a vulnerable child alive for many years, we evolved strong bonds between parents and children, between mates, within extended family groups, and within bands as a whole - all in order to sustain "the village it takes to raise a child." Bands with better teamwork outcompeted other bands for scarce resources; since breeding occurred primarily within bands, genes for bonding, cooperation, and altruism proliferated within the human genome.
Numerous physical, social, and psychological factors promote bonding. Let's focus on physical factors, and then drill down further to examine two chemicals inside your brain: dopamine and oxytocin. Both are neurotransmitters, and oxytocin also functions as a hormone when it acts outside the nervous system.
(By the way, dopamine and oxytocin, like many other biochemical factors, are present in other mammals, too, but as with most things human, their effects are much more nuanced and elaborated with us.)
Dopamine It's an error to reduce love to chemicals, since so many other factors are at work in the brain and mind as well, so let's hold this material in perspective.
In effect, being in love rewards the pleasure centers in your brain, which then crave whatever it was that was so rewarding - in other words, your beloved. Those reward centers are the same ones that light up when people win the lottery. Or use cocaine.
And being rejected in love activates a part of the brain called the insula, which is the same region that lights up when we are in physical pain.
So we are doubly motivated to hold fast to the object of our love: feel the pleasure, and avoid the pain.
Interestingly, when people are in lust, rather than in love, different systems of the brain get activated, notably the hypothalamus and the amygdala.
The hypothalamus regulates drives like hunger and thirst. Interestingly, the word in the early records of the teachings of the Buddha that is translated in English as the "desire" or "attachment" or "clinging" that is the root of suffering has the fundamental meaning of "thirst," so it's pretty likely that the hypothalamus is involved in much of the clinging that leads to suffering.
The amygdala handles emotional reactivity, and both it and the hypothalamus are involved in arousal of the organism and readiness for action. (While these systems are centrally involved in fight-or-flight responses to stress, they also get engaged in energizing activities that feel emotionally positive like cheering on your favorite team - or fantasizing about your sweetheart.)
These neural components may shed some light on the subjective experience of being in love, which commonly feels softer, more "Aaaaahh, how sweet!" rather than the "Rawwrh, gotta have it!" intensity of lust.
That said, dopamine - increased in love - triggers testosterone production, which is a major factor in the sex drive of both men and women.
So, in short, we fall in love, and among other neural circuits and psychological complexities, the same reward chemicals involved in drug addiction lead us to crave our beloved and want sex with him or her. Sorry to be mechanistic here, but you get the idea.
Oxytocin Oxytocin promotes bonding between mothers and children, and between mates, so they work together to keep those kids alive.
For example, in women, oxytocin triggers the let-down reflex in nursing, and is involved in that blissful, oceanic feeling of peace and comfort and love experienced by many women while breastfeeding.
It also seems to be part of the female response to stress (more than in men - since women have much more oxytocin than men do), in part by encouraging what Shelley Taylor at UCLA has termed "tend-and-befriend" behaviors in women when they are stressed.
(Of course, men, too, will often reach out to others and be friendly during tough times, whether it's crunch quarter at the office, or somewhere in a dusty war - another example of how there are many pathways in the brain to important functional results.)
The experiential qualities of oxytocin are pleasurable feelings of relaxation and rightness, so it is an internal reward for all bonding behaviors - not just with mates.
Oxytocin encourages sociability; for example, when oxytocin capabilities are knocked out in laboratory mice, their relationships with other mice are very disturbed.
And oxytocin dampens the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis - besides having functional benefits, this is another pathway for rewarding, and thus encouraging, bonding behaviors.
What triggers this warm and fuzzy and let's-get-together-now chemical?
Oxytocin is released in both women and men:
• When nipples are stimulated (such as through nursing)
• During orgasm, promoting the afterglow of warm affection (and a tendency, sometimes annoying in a partner, to fall asleep!)
• During extended, physical, especially "skin-to-skin" contact (e.g., cuddling children, long hugs with friends, teens forming packs on the couch, lovers caressing after sex)
• When moving together harmoniously, like dancing
• When there are warm feelings of rapport or love; a strong sense of compassion and kindness probably entails releases of oxytocin, though I haven't seen a study on that specific subject (a great Ph.D. dissertation for someone).
• Probably during devotional experiences, such as in prayer, or while with certain kinds of spiritual teachers
Probably, oxytocin can also be released just by imagining - the more vividly, the better - the activities just mentioned, particularly when combined with warm feelings.
* * *
Of course, dopamine and oxytocin are just two of the many factors at work in our relationships. For example, philosophical values or ideals of universal compassion, such as in the major religions of the world, can also influence a person's behavior greatly, with or without any measurable surges of dopamine or oxytocin.
Nonetheless, appreciating the biochemical factors at work any time we experience bonding or love, can help a person not get quite so swept away by the ups and downs of relationships.
Next post: The Dark Side of Bonding
Does our brain stop developing in adulthood? How do our experiences affect our ability to grow and change?
Humans have the longest childhood of any animal on the planet. Since children are very vulnerable in the wild, there must have been a large evolutionary payoff in giving the brain an extended period of intense development. Of course, learning continues after childhood; we continually acquire new skills and knowledge all the way into old age. (After he turned 90, my dad made my jaw drop with an article in which he calculated te best odds for different bids in bridge: there are lots of similar examples.)
The brain’s capacity to learn -- and thus change itself -- is called neuroplasticity. Usually, the results are tiny, incremental alternations in neural structure that add up as the years go by. Occasionally, the results are dramatic -- for example, in blind people, some occipital regions designed for visual processing can be rezoned for auditory functions (Begley 2007).
Because of all the ways your brain changes its structure, your experience matters beyond its momentary, subjective impact. It makes enduring changes in the physical tissues of your brain which affect your well-being, functioning, and relationships.
Based on science, this is a fundamental reason for being kind to yourself, cultivating wholesome experiences, and taking them in.
**Learn more from the source - the promise of Rick Hanson’s latest book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom joins modern science with ancient teachings to show you how you can change your brain and change your life. Buy it! Read it! You’ll love every word...
The Brain in a Bucket
Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain - And Your Life.
Have you ever seen a real brain?
I remember the first time I saw one, in a neuropsych class: the instructor put on rubber gloves to protect against the formaldehyde preservative, popped the lid off of a lab bucket, and then pulled out a brain.
It didn’t look like much, a nondescript waxy yellowish-white blob rather like a sculpted head of cauliflower. But the whole class went silent. We were looking at the real deal, ground zero for consciousness, headquarters for “me.” The person it came from – or, in a remarkable sense, the person who came from it – was of course dead. Would my brain, too, end up in a lab bucket? That thought gave me a creepy weird feeling completely unlike the feeling of having my heart or hand in a bucket some day – which gets right at the specialness of your brain.
That blobby organ – just three pounds of tofu-like tissue – is considered by scientists to be the most complex object currently known in the universe. It holds 100 billion neurons amidst another trillion support cells. A typical neuron makes about 5000 connections called synapses with other neurons, producing a neural network with 500 trillion nodes in it. At any moment, each node is active or not, creating a kind of 0 or 1 bit of information. Neurons commonly fire five to fifty times a second, so while you’ve been reading this paragraph, literally quadrillions of bits of information have circulated inside your head.
Your nervous system – with its control center in the brain – moves information around like your heart moves blood around. Broadly defined, all that information is the mind, most of which is forever unconscious. Apart from the influence of hypothetical transcendental factors – call them God, Spirit, the Ground, or by no name at all – the mind is what the nervous system does. So if you care at all about your mind – including your emotions, sense of self, pleasures and pains, memories, dreams, reflections - (and who doesn’t?) then it makes tons of sense to care about what’s going on inside your own brain.
Until very recently, the brain was like the weather: you could care about it all you wanted, but you couldn’t do a thing about it. But new brain imaging technologies like functional MRI’s have revolutionized neuropsychology much as the invention of the microscope transformed biology. According to Dr. Alan Lesher, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, our knowledge of the brain has doubled in the past twenty years.
These breakthroughs have informed – and been informed by – practical applications in psychotherapy. For example, trauma therapies have been improved by research on memory, while the results of interventions such as EMDR have suggested new lines of investigation. Like other therapists, I feel clearer about a client’s mind because more is known about his or her brain.
I’m also a meditator – started in 1974, at the tail end of college – so it’s been inspiring to see something similar happening with contemplative practice. Some of the most interesting studies of brain function have been done on long-term meditators, the Olympic athletes of mental training. For example, experienced meditators actually have thicker cortical layers in the brain regions responsible for self-awareness and the control of attention.
Our Extraordinary PotentialThis illustrates a fundamental point with extraordinary potential: when your mind changes, your brain changes, both temporarily – with the momentary flicker of synaptic activity – and in lasting ways through formation of new neural structures. Therefore, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your whole being – and every other being whose life you touch.
The new neuroscience, combined with the insights of clinical psychology and contemplative practice, gives you an historically unprecedented opportunity to shift your brain – and thus your mind – toward greater happiness, love and wisdom.
And that’s what this blog is about: skillful means – from the intersection of psychology, neurology, and contemplative practice – for relieving distress and dysfunction, increasing well-being, and deepening mindfulness and inner peace.
We’ll focus on scientifically informed but eminently practical tools, skills, and perspectives – things you can use in the middle of daily life: on the job, in traffic, raising kids, when you’re nervous or mad, or working through a sticky conversation with your mom or your mate. For example, the next several entries in this blog will look at the power of gratitude to undo the threat reactivity of the brain, how to weave positive experiences into your brain and your self, and the three neural circuits of empathy.
And if you want to learn more, check out my free e-newsletter, Just One Thing, which suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.
With just a little understanding of your own brain, you can reach down inside the enchanted loom of your very being and gradually weave greater strength, insight, confidence, contentment, and loving intimacy into the tapestry of your life. That’s the great opportunity here: your brain is not in a bucket, it’s alive and pulsing with possibility, waiting for the skillful touch of your mind to guide it in increasingly wonderful directions.
I hope you’ll join me on this incredible journey.
How much change in the brain makes
a difference in the mind?
So I've taken the liberty of posting the comment here (hoping that's OK in blog etiquette; still learning as I go), and then responding. Here it is:
“I was pondering your statement that long-term meditators show a thickening in certain areas of the brain. As I understand it, the volume of the skull is fixed in adults. This would seem to require that if one part thickens, another part must be reduced. I am curious as to whether anyone has considered what the implications of a loss of volume in these other areas might be. I enjoyed your article, and look forward to more on the topic of neurology and meditation.”
While the size of the skull is indeed fixed in adulthood, we can both lose gray matter volume due to the normal effects of aging and gain it through mental training of one kind or another. For instance, one study showed that the hippocampus (really hippocampi, since there is one on each side of the brain, but convention is usually to refer to neural regions in the singular), of London taxi drivers is thicker after their training, which makes sense since the hippocampus is deeply involved with spatial memory.
But the size of these changes in volume is very small, so they do not "bump up against" the skull. For example, the increased thickness in the brains of meditators - seen in one of the cooler studies in this field - amounted to about 1/200th of an inch. This may not seem like much but is a BIG change in the density of synaptic networks when you can fit about 5000 synapses in the width of a human hair.
The point is that small changes in daily activities - meditating instead of sleeping in, driving a cab instead of working in an office - can make changes in the brain that seem small but actually create big changes in the mind. And that fact opens the door to amazing opportunities.