Try free for 7 days.

Mindfulness.com
Meditation
See all Meditation

Browse

Top articles

How to Meditate: Meditation 101 for Beginners

10 Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation

What is Meditation?

Mindful LivingSleep
Community

Already have an account?

Sign in

00:00

00:00

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Rick shares the science-backed benefits of mindfulness and how the practice affects the body and brain, and therefore our lives.

I'm your host Melli O'Brien. And with me today, I am thrilled to have Dr. Rick Hanson with us today. And Rick is a neuro psychologist and he's also a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, my favorite is Buddha Brain and Just One Thing and also Mother Nurture.

And he's also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Contemplating Wisdom and Neuroscience. Rick has spoken at universities like Oxford and Harvard, and also taught at meditation centers around the world and is also the creator of an online course called the Foundations of Well-being. And can I just say also for all of you out there who want to just find some really great free resources on how to live a more happy, contented and peaceful life, Rick's website, RickHanson.net, which is spelled Hanson, H A N S O N is just like an amazing resource of free information to go and check out. So I highly recommend going and checking that out as well. Rick, I'm absolutely thrilled to have you here with us today.

Thank you. And I can't wait to talk all things neuroscience and mindfulness with you. You're welcome. I'm happy to be here. Yeah.

So as I mentioned, I want to talk about with you today mainly how mindfulness changes our brains and changes our whole lives really from the inside out. But I'd love to talk with you first of all, about, well, I have kind of like a two-fold question for you. First of all, would you consider yourself, on reflection now, would you say that you were a contemplative child, a spiritually inclined child? And if you could tell us the story of how you came to be practicing mindfulness and interested in the contemplative traditions of the world. That's such a great question. You know, Melli, I think a lot of people, when they are kids and a lot of kids, when they're kids, a lot of kids, period, like me, including at a young age, you know, my earliest memories go back to being nearly three.

I wasn't quite three, or I had just turned three. And in those vivid memories as well as other vivid memories is really continuously, or it shows up in most of them, a background sense that there was a tremendous amount of construction of unnecessary unhappiness - in my family, the other kids around me, school. I was in schools watching the adults, just a lot of needless tension, worry, bickering, fault-finding, hassling, stress, frazzledness, and so forth. And there was in me a very strong sense of a kind of poignant, wistful wishfulness that it did not need to be this way. I didn't know how people could reliably, stably find lasting true happiness, love and inner peace.

But I honestly had a sense of a kind of quest to find out in the back of my mind, partly motivated by being quite unhappy myself. Nothing like pain to want you to pull your hand back from the hot stove. So that was the beginning for me. And I went to a very conventional kind of high school and grew up in a conventional setting, raised a casual Christian, no particular spirituality there. And then in college, I stumbled on the whole human potential movement in the early seventies, which then led me to Eastern perspectives and practices by the time I was a senior at UCLA.

And in the spring of 1974, which is when I began meditating, and at that point, kind of the doors popped quite open. I'd had a lot of background previously in human potential, humanistic psychology, et cetera. I'd had beginnings of interest in the nervous system, the physical, natural basis for suffering or happiness. And then when I came across the analysis of the mind in ultimate reality from the more Eastern traditions, including Buddhism, which became kind of my own home tradition, that just felt wow, deeply true and a penetrating window into what we could do to establish the basis for lasting, unconditional contentment, love and inner peace. And so that was kind of the beginning for me back in 1974.

Been at it pretty steadily ever since, for better or worse. And that was my own journey, if you will, that's where my journey began with mindfulness. It's so interesting, you know, as I hear you talk about what it was like for you as a child. It's pretty much my own story. And I would hazard a guess that so many people who would be watching this summit would have the same story that starts as a child, that sense of longing for a way of being with more contentedness and wholeness.

So, and you find yourself now at these amazing place of, you know, understanding deeply the way that our brain works. I mean, I've heard you say that neuroscience is a baby science, but still having this understanding of that world and as well as the, the contemplative sciences. So we now have a fairly decent body of research about how mindfulness affects the body and the brain. Could you tell us about some of that? So when we practice mindfulness, what actually happens in our brain and what does that do? How does that roll out in a person's life in terms of behavior and emotional intelligence and those kinds of things? That's a great question. So, people use the term mindfulness as you all know in different ways.

That's true. Yeah, I tend to, I'm fine with however, we use it, as long as we know how we're using it and flag movements from one definition or meaning to another, not getting all semantic or anything, but just for clarity. You know? And so I go kind of old school to the original notions of mindfulness rooted in Buddhism as sustained present moment awareness that itself is neutral with regard to what it's aware of it. And, yet alongside with mindfulness are other important factors, such as curiosity, investigation, self-compassion, insight and so forth. Okay.

So we can be mindful under any and all conditions, a kind of intense epitome of mindfulness is sustained contemplative practice, such as mindfulness of the body or if someone's doing this in a more theistic frame in which there's a relationship with something transcendental, we could think of prayer as a kind of sustained mindfulness practice as well. Okay. So research has been done on people who have greater trait mindfulness. They're more mindful in general. Without practice? For various reasons.

So it correlates with being a more mindful person, however, you became mindful. Maybe you are just naturally more mindful. Okay. But whatever it is, you know, mindfulness itself is a trait. It correlates with a lot of good things, including resilience, mental health, happiness, positive emotion, empathy for others and so forth.

Okay. Intervention studies that more specifically look at what happens to the brain when people deliberately do mindfulness practice are very interesting. Particularly people who do, you know, a significant amount of meditative practice, not perfect meditators, but you know, 20, 30 minutes most days maybe, or, you know, with experience perhaps less time, but they're still doing a fair amount of practice. So they tend to have different brains in some important and interesting ways. First, they tend to have more cortical tissue.

That's the outer shell of the brain, if you will, from the root of the Latin word bark, like the bark of a tree. And those thicknesses really matter because you could put roughly five thousand synapses, little connections between neurons side by side in the width of just one single hair. So increasing cortical thickness by even a fraction of a millimeter makes a big difference. So long-term mindfulness meditators, for example, have a measurably thicker cortex behind their foreheads, prefrontal regions that help regulate attention, emotion, and actions. They also have thicker cortex in the insula, a part of the brain that helps us tune into ourselves and also tune into the emotions of other people.

They have measurably thicker cortex third in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that puts things in perspective and also calms down the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala. So we get more resilient. Also meditators, interestingly, have smaller amygdalae. They have, the amygdala is a little smaller. The alarm bell is a little, not quite so loud and freaky.

Also people who routinely practice meditation, or even at the end of just an eight week intervention study have a stronger immune system that's outside of the brain. Right. But they also have increased activation of the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which for most people, you know, right-handed people and roughly half of all, left-handed people have language on the left and visual-spatial on the right. Anyway, meditators have greater activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with more positive emotion and a better mood. In part because left prefrontal cortex puts the brakes on negative emotions.

Just to finish up with two more interesting findings, we have brainwaves which basically track the synchronized activity of large swaths of neural real estate, kind of all firing in synchronization with each other many times a second. And the fastest of these brainwaves, the gamma range brainwaves, beating roughly 30 to 80 times a second, which is associated with greater learning from life's experiences and also more sense of integration and wholeness. Long-term meditation practitioners have greater intensity and reach of this range of important brainwaves, gamma wave brainwaves. And last, it's beginning to be found that people who meditate, particularly those who maybe do intensive concentration practices, preserve the length of, what are called telomeres, which are strips of atoms at the very ends of the chromosomes that protect us against the age related illnesses of various kinds. So if you want to stay younger in a sense, one of the many ways to do that of course, is to meditate.

So if I were to just summarize it, I mean, it's really quite extraordinary the benefits just in the brain, which then translate to benefits in the emotions and our psychology and our relationships altogether - greater resilience, greater happiness, more capacity to weather life's ups and downs, more insight into yourself, more insight into other people, less depression, less anxiety, quicker recovery from illnesses of various kinds or surgeries, and faster healing of wounds, less inflammation in the body. To sum up, if the big pharmaceutical companies like Merck or Pfizer could patent meditation or patent MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction, whatever, they could patent it and make money from it. We'd be seeing ads for meditation routinely. Well, certainly in American TV where you see ads for Prozac, Viagra and the rest of that all night long. I don't know if the ads for Viagra would diminish, but I think the answer Prozac would be replaced by ads for MBSR and other forms of meditation.

Yeah. I was just thinking when you were talking about, you know, the anti-aging aspect of mindfulness, wouldn't it be great if we could open a beauty magazine one day and instead of seeing product after product of, you know, putting all this stuff all over your face and spraying it all over your hair, if it could just say, well, Hey, why don't you just practice mindfulness? And it gives you an inner glow to boot. Well, actually, it's a pitch for adolescents. For those of you who are teenagers or have teenagers, one of the more powerful ways to motivate teenagers to do some kind of emotional intelligence practice, including mindfulness practice is that it will lower your stress level. That's one of the most dominant findings.

It will lower your stress level and stress gives you pimples. Oh. So you want to improve your complexion? One of the good odds, not a guarantee but a good odd strategy, is to practice mindfulness. That's motivating. That is motivating, not only for teenagers, but that is motivating.

So, what I'd love to, at least from your point of view, from the point of view of neuropsychology is, is there, do we know if there is some kind of minimum effective dose or some kind of ideal dose? How dose dependent is mindfulness? What happens in the brain with different dosages? It's a great question. And it relates to the type of practice you do, of course, and also the kind of person you are. Right? Yeah. And some people are very receptive. They really tune in, you know.

Other people, they probably are, you know, slower learners. And so they just need to have higher doses to get the same effect. Right. What I've seen looking at this is that, at least in terms of the body of knowledge that we have neuroscientifically, in terms of measurable changes in the nervous system, I mean, there's a general principle, which is the more the better. Yeah.

And the briefest intervention study I'm aware of would be eight weeks of MBSR. Yeah. The larger point though, I think, really is to commit to something routinely. So my personal vow is to always meditate at least one minute or more a day. And sometimes I remember that minute just before going to sleep and that's the minute I do.

But I think there's something very powerful about, you know, the dailiness of it, whatever that is you'll do. And second, I think it's important to adapt your practice to your own needs. Maybe you're a person who's more toward the spirited, ADD end of the normal temperamental spectrum, and so for you just sitting isn't going to do it for you. But being guided in a practice, you have a lovely voice, listening to one of your practices perhaps, or walking, because it's more stimulating. If that's the minute or the 20 minutes or the 45 minutes that you're going to do every day, or maybe something more heartfelt, like loving kindness or gratitude or opening to some sense of God is love, if that's meaningful for you.

Whatever your practice is that you'll do, that's the one to do. What is crystal clear is that people in just eight weeks of MBSR had significant and measurable changes in their brains. And current neuroimaging technology needs to see pretty big changes in the brain to be able to measure it because it's a little bit like the early microscopes. You know, those little amoebas or whatever they were seeing, you know, and the saliva, whatnot had to be really big to be able to see them. Same with neuroimaging.

It's got to be pretty big to see it. So if you can get a scientific study about changing the brain, something big has happened there. Yeah. Wow. Wonderful.

I'm really glad that you, I'm really glad that you brought that up as well that people have different personality types and there really isn't one right way to practice. And that's, that's a really great insight. I'm so glad that you shared that. We all have such different tendencies. The thing I would really say is that you can have your body and your emotions as a real marker.

For example, one of the most reliable, probably the most reliable indicator of long-term meditation practice is how rapidly people's heart rate and breathing rate drops when they go into meditation. Oh, interesting. Yeah, it's interesting. Beginners, if you will, in most cases, on average, take quite a while for the body to settle down. Whereas experienced meditators who start out at that same baseline, let's call it, as a, these are beginners, these are regular meditators, let's say their heart rates are the same, or they come zooming in, like I did for this interview from having doing, having done a lot of emails.

You know, the meditators, they're going to drop really fast. So that's a marker. And second, positive emotion. How readily does a person, you know, move into some sense of peacefulness, wellbeing? Key point, you're not craving that, you're not chasing it, you're not clinging to it because that interrupts wellbeing obviously. But, so my point is that what's going to have an impact on you is if you're, in terms of this question of dosing, it's not about duration, it's about impact.

You have an experienced meditator drops into the very deep zone in one minute, and then hangs out there for five minutes. Right? So they get four minutes in the deep zone, but a beginning meditator does 20 minutes of meditation and they clock, you know, 20 seconds in the deep zone, even though they're spending more time, they're going to have less impact. So I think the takeaway from this is not to strive and seek some kind of, you know, Zen moment on one hand. But on the other hand, let your body be your teacher, let your emotions be your teacher. They're telling you, and they are giving you feedback.

So find out which really helps you relax and open into some kind of really beautiful, peaceful place. I'm aware of a lot of meditative practices, a lot of traditions and a lot of methods, including outside Buddhism, and it's humbling to appreciate that a very large fraction of the value of mindfulness and meditation is carried by two things that are not unique to mindfulness meditation, stress relief, and positive emotion. But the fact of that doesn't diminish the impact of meditation because whatever your skillful means is to get to the ends, let's say, of stress relief and including relaxation and second positive emotion, that's going to have a lot of benefit for you. And then in addition to that, you can look for what also is available in things like mindfulness, such as the development of that, what's called ,that observing, witnessing, you know, disidentification from the streaming of consciousness or particular insights, such as insights into impermanence, transience, and so on, or other benefits in your particular practice, like a sense of union with the divine or your guru or whatever. But, yeah, but to sum up, you want to help yourself.

You know, drop into a powerful, good, deep place because that's going to have a lot more benefit for you. Yeah. It's really interesting, you know, that was one of my teachers who was actually a Swami in the yogic tradition. He always had, he really kind of hopped on with us about the point, if we ever talked about dosage or, you know, how often we should do things, he always used to say to us, look, five minutes of high quality practice is worth an entire retreat of, you know, kind of coming and going. And he was just like, you know, you, you want to be thinking about high quality practice more so than anything.

And also just, you know, respecting where you're at. But having that in mind as you do. There's no use sitting there for thinking for an hour, but lost in thoughts. I know it's a really tricky thing because mindfulness is a relationship to states, states of mind, right? It's our relationship where we're being, we're not being forgetful, we're recollected. That's out of the root meaning of the word from mindfulness and early teachings of the Buddha, it's around recollectedness.

It's our relationship to states. And sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that mindfulness is a state. That's a mistake. You know, mindfulness is a relationship to states. Okay.

It's not to be equated with bare witnessing or choiceless awareness. In bare witnessing, there's little but mindfulness present. But mindfulness is not conflated with or equated to that condition so that anything except choiceless awareness is not mindfulness. A very important point. And I think a lot of people in the modern mindfulness movement, you know, I've inadvertently really misunderstood that, and that's an important point.

But second, mindfulness is a means to an end. You know, it's not an end in itself. And I think some people get really caught up and kind of glamorize or glorify the technique of mindfulness. And there they are, you know, kind of being mindful of the streaming of consciousness and what streams through their consciousness and the overall change in their being is fairly nonexistent. And it's really okay to both be mindful while also, from time to time, as appropriate, you know, from time to time, gently encourage a relaxing of the body, an opening into warmth, warmheartedness, you know, a coming into gratitude, a letting go, an opening out into allness altogether.

Right? It's okay to do that. It doesn't, I mean, there's a place for radical choiceless awareness where you don't do anything about that. But much of the time, I think it's really okay to be both mindful, while periodically, gently inviting in a deepening of that which you would like to cultivate more of in yourself. Yeah. So some people, I've heard the same thing before where people think it's kind of mutually, you cannot be mindful and at the same time, for instance, wanting to cultivate more love or compassion or wanting to create something in your life.

So what you're saying is, and I completely 100% agree with you, that they don't have to be separate. Mindfulness is not choiceless awareness where you never cultivate, or in your language, you never pull any weeds or you never cultivate any good things in your life. They absolutely go together. And in fact, mindfulness is, I guess the first step to being able to do that in our lives. I think that's a critically important point.

I mean, if we are, again, going back old school to the original's best teachings of the Buddha, if we were to be mindful and he has this long list, you know, while walking, while sitting while lying, while talking, while eating, while going to the bathroom and he puts it in there, if we were to be mindful under all those conditions, why not be also mindful while we are, as you put it, you know, quoting me too, trying to release the negative or grow the positive. Yeah, it's really okay. Yeah. Glad you brought that up. And we spoke a little bit, we kind of just touched on briefly something that I'd love to expand on a little bit more, and that is that, you know, over time with repeated practice of mindfulness, it seems that certain insights, certain realizations about, you know, the nature of things or ourselves tend to naturally arise.

And one of those things that seems to be very common is a kind of a reorientation of our sense of self to a much more expansive and, interconnected sense of self. And I was wondering about what this is like in the brain. Do we know if there are structural changes in the brain that create this experience of a reorientation of our sense of self? I would love to hear, first of all, what are the typical insights that seem to arise out of the practice and how does that relate to our brains? It's such an interesting question. So, a couple things. So first, if you scan the brains, let's say, of long time meditation practitioners, much of the research on this has been done on Tibetan lamas, yogis, tulkus, monks, monastic nuns.

Yeah. We're talking 20,000, 30,000 hours, literally people doing twelve-year retreats, stuff like that. And the first interesting thing is their brains look almost exactly like the brain of some kind of anxious, driven, aggressive stockbroker, right? They all look the same because they are brains. Right? They're still walking or talking, they're maintaining a heart. You know, structurally, they look very, very similar.

There's some small differences that you start to see like, as I said, thicker tissue in certain parts of the brain and also differences that can make a big difference. Also this thing I said about more gamma wave activity, more sense of, you know, more integrating, synchronization of large swaths of the brain. So on the one hand, there there's a similarity, but on the other hand, there are differences that do seem to equate and to really pop out. One, is this sense of gamma wave brain activity that's very integrative. And it makes me think about, you may be familiar with this, one of the five factors of those so-called dhyanas, these non-ordinary states of awareness that constitute the wise concentration, right concentration element of the eightfold path.

Those states of awareness in the Southeast Asian Buddhist tradition that I'm most rooted in, have those states of awareness arise due to factors, right and arise to the causes. They arise dependently. Yeah. One of those five factors is called unification of consciousness, singleness of mind, which probably involves this kind of gamma wave integrative, wholeness. You start to experience, we have a poet in America called Walt Whitman.

He had a lovely line, "I am multitudes." It's a sense of accepting and embracing and including all the multitudes, you know, that you are. So there's this movement from a sense of this contracted tense, a congealed I looking out through the eyes, this entity somewhere inside. It has to defend itself and glamorize and glorify itself and claims things and identifies with things. And you start more opening out into... you are a person.

Persons certainly exist and they have duties, moral duties and also moral rights. But it's not easy to find and you cannot find it so far in neuroscience, and I think nor in your own direct experience, the full package of the presumed entity, I, that's assumed to exist in Western psychology and philosophy, and that has huge implications. So it's, we're talking here about the sense of opening out into the whole person which looks plausibly like it is supported in part by this integrative whole brain gamma wave activity. So that's the first major finding and it has a lot of implications, including training in whole body awareness in part to support those gamma wave patterns. So when you say training in whole body awareness as in having that, you know, like something like a body scan practice where you just hold the whole body in awareness? It depends what you mean by the body scan.

So usually the way attention works with the body is that if you think of awareness like a stage, right? One way to think of it is attention and intention is the spotlight on the whole stage of awareness. Attention kind of skitters around from sensation to sensation to sensation. If you're tracking your body or just simply sensations of breathing, right, or put a little differently, you know, different things get foregrounded under the spotlight moment after moment after moment. But what we can also do is to widen that spotlight to include, in a sense of gestalt awareness, a wider and wider field in which everything in it is experienced as a single percept, one single integrated experience, but has different aspects, but experienced as one thing. All right.

So it's kind of like if you go outside, you can have your gaze fled from thing to thing to thing, or you can kind of soften your gaze, yeah, and like, whoa, the whole thing. So if you practice that with your body, which is a wonderful, powerful practice, I think that one of the probable benefits of it is that it supports this gamma wave activity, which is one of the major findings of people who have, in their own report, more of a sense of selflessness and less inclination to take life so personally, et cetera. The other major finding, which has a lot of practical implications, is that when people are doing me, myself and I - I've been cheated and mistreated. When will I be loved? Why'd you treat me like that? And you know, I think this. It's my precious.

When we're doing that kind of stuff, right, we tend to activate networks in the middle of the brain, middle and cortical networks, either when we're goal-directed toward the front of the midline or when we're just kind of spacing out a daydreaming, the soulful default mode toward the back of the midline networks. Either way, there's a lot of I in those midline networks, a lot of me making and I making. All right. So on the other hand, uh, studies show, and people can check out work from a fellow named Norman Farb, F-A-R-B, his papers, but anyway, when people go more into open awareness, where they're in the present moment, they're not engaged with the future oforthe past, there's less and less sense of I, they're not taking things so personally, these midline activations reduce. They decrease.

And what starts to happen is networks on the science of the brain, especially the right side for right-handed people, which is where visual gestalt, holistic processing more resides in the right hemisphere, they tend to activate lateral networks over here. And with mindfulness training, at the end of like eight weeks of MBSR, there's more stable capacity to go into the lateral mode of present moment, more self-love, less problem solving, less abstracting, less taking things personally, really being in the now kinds of awareness. And with practice, you can strengthen those lateral modes because neurons that fire together wire together, as the saying has it. So if you stimulate those particular networks, they're going to get stronger over time, kind of like working a muscle again and again, and again. And people who are more able to drop into present moment awareness, which has a less sense of self in it, you're still a person, you're aware, you're abiding but as the multitude, but not so much as an ego.

People like that have more reliable activation of the lateral mode. And so one way into that is to do the whole body awareness, the gestalt awareness I was talking about, your training in lateral mode activation. And as you do that, what also really tends to fall away is the sense of I. There's still a person there. You're still aware.

And still able to function. Yeah, and making choices and for having perspectives and being determined and all the rest of that. But, you know, you start operating more and more in life as the whole package, the whole person you are rather than, you know, protecting and endlessly bound to this little presumed dictator, you know, the inner I. Hmm. That's really, really interesting.

That's fascinating. And again, over time, more and more practice, especially with that kind of whole body awareness, things like that, you would expect that that sense of not being such a limited little I would deepen and deepen and deepen as time goes on. Yeah. I think that's really true. There's a way in which mindfulness practice or spiritual practice altogether, contemplative practice often has a sense of rounded, of kind of grim, dour, bummer recognition of suffering.

You know, if you're not miserable, you're not really paying attention. And it's, you know, oh, happiness who needs it. It's just more poignant, like blah. And, you know, it's, what's interesting is that if you look at the people, generally speaking, who are the most developed in any tradition you care about - of Christian, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism - even people who have really gone a long way with a kind of more secular paths of self-actualization. Yeah.

And certainly Buddhism. The farther along people are, generally the happier they get. Their heart is lifted. They're inspired. They're peaceful.

They're contented. You know, it's a path, as Jack Kornfield puts it, it's a path with heart. It's a path of heart, with heart, to heart. And one of the things that's been really striking in terms of the beneficial applications of modern psychology and neuropsychology to contemplative practice is to really appreciate the healing power and the spiritually transforming power of positive emotion, of one kind or another. Peacefulness, compassion, kindness, gratitude, sense of your own worth, enjoying wholesome pleasures in life, you know.

The trick of course is to appreciate the value of positive emotion and open to it and receive it, including the positive experiences you have on the cushion or in your body scan, or in your mindfulness class, to appreciate these emotionally positive, emotionally, enjoyable experiences, to really appreciate them so they sink into your brain, right? While at the same time letting go of them and not claiming them as mine. Right. Yeah, wonderful. Well, I want to be respectful of your time. So I just have one, final kind of comment, question for you.

So it's been said that mindfulness has the capacity to change the world from the inside out one, person at a time. And so what I'd love to know is that from your perspective, from the perspective of neuroscience, but as well, just drawing on your own direct experience of what unfolds in our life when you practice mindfulness, what do you think the changes would be like on the world stage if mindfulness hit critical mass? You know, I'm talking a billion, two billion people, what would that world look like? It gets very interesting in terms of how, I mean, it's a beautiful thought and what do we mean, mindfulness? Right? And, you know, it's been pointed out that burglars are mindful, snipers are mindful. Mindfulness itself, even in Buddhist psychology in the Abhidhamma traditional early psychology. So it is a neutral mental factor. On the other hand, it is striking that this simple, neutral present moment awareness for most people, has enormous positive benefits.

They kind of ripple out from it. And I, myself reflected as have others on why would that be? Right? And I think part of it is the ways in which mindfulness by its very nature disentangles us from negative reactive patterns streaming along. We start understanding them better. And, implicit in the act of mindfulness itself is a disidentification. You kind of step out of the horror movie or the crazy explosions, action thriller and suddenly you're 20 rows back looking at it going, wow, too bad.

Whoa, that looks pretty intense. You know, that itself is huge and could really make a big difference in the world altogether. So I think that part is really true. In addition to mindfulness itself though, my own opinion and I think others probably share, is that we need to add a moral dimension to mindfulness. I think it's, I think to some extent, maybe for some people, a more moral dimension of compassion or benevolence, kind of a sense of interconnectedness.

You know, if I hurt you, it hurts me eventually. If I help you, it helps me eventually. Things like that. To some extent, kind of maybe-sort of for some people drift out of or emerge out of mindfulness itself, pure mindfulness practice. But it's a slow process.

And that's why I think that great teachers like the Buddha, who certainly appreciated mindfulness, he allocated one of the eight elements of the noble eightfold path to it had seven other elements, as well. It's the eightfold path, not the one fold path. So I think cultivating a warm heart, kindness for others, moral commitments, a sense of social justice, things like that are also really important. Yeah. Last, in addition to that, I've been really focusing on the second and third noble truths in Buddhism, which are essentially a purely psychological drive theory of suffering.

And there's nothing mystical about the four noble truths, you know. There is suffering. It's not that the entirety of life is suffering, but there's a lot of self-constructed suffering. Think of that as the first noble truth. Whoa, I'm startled by another call that came in.

But anyway, back to this. There is the first noble truth, you know, that there is constructed suffering. And then there's the second noble truth that basically says, why do we suffer? Suffering arises due to causes, causes being craving. Then third noble truth says it's possible to reduce causes. Fourth noble truth says how to do it.

Okay. What's the modern neuropsychology of craving. Why do we crave? Well, craving is a drive state that itself arises due to causes. What are the underlying causes of craving, broadly defined, right? Underlying causes of craving are internal sense of deficit or disturbance. Yeah.

So how do we remedy the internal sense of deficit or disturbance, especially for people who have every reason in the world to not experience an underlying sense of deficit or disturbance, typically people in the more advantaged populations of the world? This time, you know, at this day and age, certainly two thirds of the world's population is, if not 5/6th of it, really do have the object of conditions in their everyday life to feel fundamentally safe, fundamentally satisfied, and fundamentally connected, our three fundamental needs loosely related to the inner lizard, mouse and monkey of the reptilian brainstem, mammalian subcortex, primate human cortex. Okay. So it's not enough to just have the object of conditions outside us that address our fundamental needs. People have to actually experience deep in their bones again and again and again that their core needs are taken care of because otherwise the brain goes into its red zone. I don't care how mindful it is or how morally committed it is.

It tips into the red zone in which it starts feeling threatened and fearful and angry in terms of safety. Or, you know, driven or frustrated or disappointed in terms of satisfaction. Or, the brain tips into a sense of hurt, shame, loneliness and the resentment, tribalistic aggressiveness towards them to protect us, whatever. So mindfulness alone I think is not enough certainly. Even compassion and benevolence alone is not enough.

We need to respect the power of the caveman brain, the cavewoman brain, the Stone Age brain. And realize that this brain that we have is extremely vulnerable to tipping into the second noble truth, in which there's an internal sense of deficit and disturbance. That's why it's so important, 10,000 times, 10 seconds at a time to register the core sense of safety, satisfaction and connection, the sense of peace, contentment and love. So that as when one does that over time, one is able to deal with the challenges of life from the green zone. You know, in other words, on the basis of an internal sense of peace, contentment and love, rather than fear, frustration and heartache.

And my own view and hope like yours, which is one reason why I was very motivated to do this program with you is that if we can just get a critical mass of human brains, you know, you said a billion or two billion, I think that's the tipping point. It doesn't take a majority, but it does take a critical mass of brains that spend most minutes of most days in the green zone, drawing on mindfulness as an extraordinarily useful resource for doing that. But I think mindfulness is a necessary resource to help our planet, you know, come to a softer landing than the one it's headed toward by the end of the century. Mindfulness is a necessary condition for that, but it's not a sufficient one. We need to also add moral commitments and a process of really, really experiencing core needs met to take fuel away from those ancient fires or craving.

Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you so much, Rick. Well, thank you. That was really sweet.

It's great to talk with you, Melli. Yeah, it's been lovely to connect. And I highly highly recommend that you checkout Rick's books. They're really amazing. And they're really well-written and really, really easy to read.

So jam packed with really, really useful stuff for practical stuff for everyday people. And Rick, before we go, do you want to share a little bit with us about your online program, the foundations of well-being? I know there's probably some people are going to want to check that out. Oh, thank you. Basically, I wanted to put into one online accessible program most of what I know about transformation, happiness, healing, effectiveness in relationships and so forth. So that's what I've done.

It's jam packed with transformational, inspirational tools that are grounded in science, in the science of positive neuroplasticity. You can go through at it any pace you want. You can just focus on one thing in it. It's got amazing interviews with lots of people like Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield. I just did an interview earlier with John Ratey earlier today about exercise and going wild, getting out into nature.

And the fundamental idea is that, you know, I was just thinking, you know, for the price of one or two sessions with your therapist, you could have an incredibly rich collection of tools to transform your life with. And that's what that program is about. And if people are in financial need, we give scholarships to people. We hope that you're telling the truth that you're actually in need and you can't afford less than a dollar a day, you know, for a year. But we really want to make this available to people worldwide.

So that's what that program is. Thanks for asking me about it. Yeah, no worries. So go on and check that out. And is there anything else that you'd like to share before we close, Rick? I have a quote from the Buddha that seems very relevant here and I'd like to offer it.

It's brief. He said, "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 little fills oneself with good." Beautiful. It's a lovely note to end on.

Thank you so much for watching. And Rick, thank you so much. Go well, my friend and keep up the great work. Thank you very much.

Talk

4.7

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

Rick shares the science-backed benefits of mindfulness and how the practice affects the body and brain, and therefore our lives.

Duration

Your default time is based on your progress and is changed automatically as you practice.

I'm your host Melli O'Brien. And with me today, I am thrilled to have Dr. Rick Hanson with us today. And Rick is a neuro psychologist and he's also a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hardwiring Happiness, my favorite is Buddha Brain and Just One Thing and also Mother Nurture.

And he's also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Contemplating Wisdom and Neuroscience. Rick has spoken at universities like Oxford and Harvard, and also taught at meditation centers around the world and is also the creator of an online course called the Foundations of Well-being. And can I just say also for all of you out there who want to just find some really great free resources on how to live a more happy, contented and peaceful life, Rick's website, RickHanson.net, which is spelled Hanson, H A N S O N is just like an amazing resource of free information to go and check out. So I highly recommend going and checking that out as well. Rick, I'm absolutely thrilled to have you here with us today.

Thank you. And I can't wait to talk all things neuroscience and mindfulness with you. You're welcome. I'm happy to be here. Yeah.

So as I mentioned, I want to talk about with you today mainly how mindfulness changes our brains and changes our whole lives really from the inside out. But I'd love to talk with you first of all, about, well, I have kind of like a two-fold question for you. First of all, would you consider yourself, on reflection now, would you say that you were a contemplative child, a spiritually inclined child? And if you could tell us the story of how you came to be practicing mindfulness and interested in the contemplative traditions of the world. That's such a great question. You know, Melli, I think a lot of people, when they are kids and a lot of kids, when they're kids, a lot of kids, period, like me, including at a young age, you know, my earliest memories go back to being nearly three.

I wasn't quite three, or I had just turned three. And in those vivid memories as well as other vivid memories is really continuously, or it shows up in most of them, a background sense that there was a tremendous amount of construction of unnecessary unhappiness - in my family, the other kids around me, school. I was in schools watching the adults, just a lot of needless tension, worry, bickering, fault-finding, hassling, stress, frazzledness, and so forth. And there was in me a very strong sense of a kind of poignant, wistful wishfulness that it did not need to be this way. I didn't know how people could reliably, stably find lasting true happiness, love and inner peace.

But I honestly had a sense of a kind of quest to find out in the back of my mind, partly motivated by being quite unhappy myself. Nothing like pain to want you to pull your hand back from the hot stove. So that was the beginning for me. And I went to a very conventional kind of high school and grew up in a conventional setting, raised a casual Christian, no particular spirituality there. And then in college, I stumbled on the whole human potential movement in the early seventies, which then led me to Eastern perspectives and practices by the time I was a senior at UCLA.

And in the spring of 1974, which is when I began meditating, and at that point, kind of the doors popped quite open. I'd had a lot of background previously in human potential, humanistic psychology, et cetera. I'd had beginnings of interest in the nervous system, the physical, natural basis for suffering or happiness. And then when I came across the analysis of the mind in ultimate reality from the more Eastern traditions, including Buddhism, which became kind of my own home tradition, that just felt wow, deeply true and a penetrating window into what we could do to establish the basis for lasting, unconditional contentment, love and inner peace. And so that was kind of the beginning for me back in 1974.

Been at it pretty steadily ever since, for better or worse. And that was my own journey, if you will, that's where my journey began with mindfulness. It's so interesting, you know, as I hear you talk about what it was like for you as a child. It's pretty much my own story. And I would hazard a guess that so many people who would be watching this summit would have the same story that starts as a child, that sense of longing for a way of being with more contentedness and wholeness.

So, and you find yourself now at these amazing place of, you know, understanding deeply the way that our brain works. I mean, I've heard you say that neuroscience is a baby science, but still having this understanding of that world and as well as the, the contemplative sciences. So we now have a fairly decent body of research about how mindfulness affects the body and the brain. Could you tell us about some of that? So when we practice mindfulness, what actually happens in our brain and what does that do? How does that roll out in a person's life in terms of behavior and emotional intelligence and those kinds of things? That's a great question. So, people use the term mindfulness as you all know in different ways.

That's true. Yeah, I tend to, I'm fine with however, we use it, as long as we know how we're using it and flag movements from one definition or meaning to another, not getting all semantic or anything, but just for clarity. You know? And so I go kind of old school to the original notions of mindfulness rooted in Buddhism as sustained present moment awareness that itself is neutral with regard to what it's aware of it. And, yet alongside with mindfulness are other important factors, such as curiosity, investigation, self-compassion, insight and so forth. Okay.

So we can be mindful under any and all conditions, a kind of intense epitome of mindfulness is sustained contemplative practice, such as mindfulness of the body or if someone's doing this in a more theistic frame in which there's a relationship with something transcendental, we could think of prayer as a kind of sustained mindfulness practice as well. Okay. So research has been done on people who have greater trait mindfulness. They're more mindful in general. Without practice? For various reasons.

So it correlates with being a more mindful person, however, you became mindful. Maybe you are just naturally more mindful. Okay. But whatever it is, you know, mindfulness itself is a trait. It correlates with a lot of good things, including resilience, mental health, happiness, positive emotion, empathy for others and so forth.

Okay. Intervention studies that more specifically look at what happens to the brain when people deliberately do mindfulness practice are very interesting. Particularly people who do, you know, a significant amount of meditative practice, not perfect meditators, but you know, 20, 30 minutes most days maybe, or, you know, with experience perhaps less time, but they're still doing a fair amount of practice. So they tend to have different brains in some important and interesting ways. First, they tend to have more cortical tissue.

That's the outer shell of the brain, if you will, from the root of the Latin word bark, like the bark of a tree. And those thicknesses really matter because you could put roughly five thousand synapses, little connections between neurons side by side in the width of just one single hair. So increasing cortical thickness by even a fraction of a millimeter makes a big difference. So long-term mindfulness meditators, for example, have a measurably thicker cortex behind their foreheads, prefrontal regions that help regulate attention, emotion, and actions. They also have thicker cortex in the insula, a part of the brain that helps us tune into ourselves and also tune into the emotions of other people.

They have measurably thicker cortex third in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that puts things in perspective and also calms down the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala. So we get more resilient. Also meditators, interestingly, have smaller amygdalae. They have, the amygdala is a little smaller. The alarm bell is a little, not quite so loud and freaky.

Also people who routinely practice meditation, or even at the end of just an eight week intervention study have a stronger immune system that's outside of the brain. Right. But they also have increased activation of the left side of the prefrontal cortex, which for most people, you know, right-handed people and roughly half of all, left-handed people have language on the left and visual-spatial on the right. Anyway, meditators have greater activation of the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with more positive emotion and a better mood. In part because left prefrontal cortex puts the brakes on negative emotions.

Just to finish up with two more interesting findings, we have brainwaves which basically track the synchronized activity of large swaths of neural real estate, kind of all firing in synchronization with each other many times a second. And the fastest of these brainwaves, the gamma range brainwaves, beating roughly 30 to 80 times a second, which is associated with greater learning from life's experiences and also more sense of integration and wholeness. Long-term meditation practitioners have greater intensity and reach of this range of important brainwaves, gamma wave brainwaves. And last, it's beginning to be found that people who meditate, particularly those who maybe do intensive concentration practices, preserve the length of, what are called telomeres, which are strips of atoms at the very ends of the chromosomes that protect us against the age related illnesses of various kinds. So if you want to stay younger in a sense, one of the many ways to do that of course, is to meditate.

So if I were to just summarize it, I mean, it's really quite extraordinary the benefits just in the brain, which then translate to benefits in the emotions and our psychology and our relationships altogether - greater resilience, greater happiness, more capacity to weather life's ups and downs, more insight into yourself, more insight into other people, less depression, less anxiety, quicker recovery from illnesses of various kinds or surgeries, and faster healing of wounds, less inflammation in the body. To sum up, if the big pharmaceutical companies like Merck or Pfizer could patent meditation or patent MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction, whatever, they could patent it and make money from it. We'd be seeing ads for meditation routinely. Well, certainly in American TV where you see ads for Prozac, Viagra and the rest of that all night long. I don't know if the ads for Viagra would diminish, but I think the answer Prozac would be replaced by ads for MBSR and other forms of meditation.

Yeah. I was just thinking when you were talking about, you know, the anti-aging aspect of mindfulness, wouldn't it be great if we could open a beauty magazine one day and instead of seeing product after product of, you know, putting all this stuff all over your face and spraying it all over your hair, if it could just say, well, Hey, why don't you just practice mindfulness? And it gives you an inner glow to boot. Well, actually, it's a pitch for adolescents. For those of you who are teenagers or have teenagers, one of the more powerful ways to motivate teenagers to do some kind of emotional intelligence practice, including mindfulness practice is that it will lower your stress level. That's one of the most dominant findings.

It will lower your stress level and stress gives you pimples. Oh. So you want to improve your complexion? One of the good odds, not a guarantee but a good odd strategy, is to practice mindfulness. That's motivating. That is motivating, not only for teenagers, but that is motivating.

So, what I'd love to, at least from your point of view, from the point of view of neuropsychology is, is there, do we know if there is some kind of minimum effective dose or some kind of ideal dose? How dose dependent is mindfulness? What happens in the brain with different dosages? It's a great question. And it relates to the type of practice you do, of course, and also the kind of person you are. Right? Yeah. And some people are very receptive. They really tune in, you know.

Other people, they probably are, you know, slower learners. And so they just need to have higher doses to get the same effect. Right. What I've seen looking at this is that, at least in terms of the body of knowledge that we have neuroscientifically, in terms of measurable changes in the nervous system, I mean, there's a general principle, which is the more the better. Yeah.

And the briefest intervention study I'm aware of would be eight weeks of MBSR. Yeah. The larger point though, I think, really is to commit to something routinely. So my personal vow is to always meditate at least one minute or more a day. And sometimes I remember that minute just before going to sleep and that's the minute I do.

But I think there's something very powerful about, you know, the dailiness of it, whatever that is you'll do. And second, I think it's important to adapt your practice to your own needs. Maybe you're a person who's more toward the spirited, ADD end of the normal temperamental spectrum, and so for you just sitting isn't going to do it for you. But being guided in a practice, you have a lovely voice, listening to one of your practices perhaps, or walking, because it's more stimulating. If that's the minute or the 20 minutes or the 45 minutes that you're going to do every day, or maybe something more heartfelt, like loving kindness or gratitude or opening to some sense of God is love, if that's meaningful for you.

Whatever your practice is that you'll do, that's the one to do. What is crystal clear is that people in just eight weeks of MBSR had significant and measurable changes in their brains. And current neuroimaging technology needs to see pretty big changes in the brain to be able to measure it because it's a little bit like the early microscopes. You know, those little amoebas or whatever they were seeing, you know, and the saliva, whatnot had to be really big to be able to see them. Same with neuroimaging.

It's got to be pretty big to see it. So if you can get a scientific study about changing the brain, something big has happened there. Yeah. Wow. Wonderful.

I'm really glad that you, I'm really glad that you brought that up as well that people have different personality types and there really isn't one right way to practice. And that's, that's a really great insight. I'm so glad that you shared that. We all have such different tendencies. The thing I would really say is that you can have your body and your emotions as a real marker.

For example, one of the most reliable, probably the most reliable indicator of long-term meditation practice is how rapidly people's heart rate and breathing rate drops when they go into meditation. Oh, interesting. Yeah, it's interesting. Beginners, if you will, in most cases, on average, take quite a while for the body to settle down. Whereas experienced meditators who start out at that same baseline, let's call it, as a, these are beginners, these are regular meditators, let's say their heart rates are the same, or they come zooming in, like I did for this interview from having doing, having done a lot of emails.

You know, the meditators, they're going to drop really fast. So that's a marker. And second, positive emotion. How readily does a person, you know, move into some sense of peacefulness, wellbeing? Key point, you're not craving that, you're not chasing it, you're not clinging to it because that interrupts wellbeing obviously. But, so my point is that what's going to have an impact on you is if you're, in terms of this question of dosing, it's not about duration, it's about impact.

You have an experienced meditator drops into the very deep zone in one minute, and then hangs out there for five minutes. Right? So they get four minutes in the deep zone, but a beginning meditator does 20 minutes of meditation and they clock, you know, 20 seconds in the deep zone, even though they're spending more time, they're going to have less impact. So I think the takeaway from this is not to strive and seek some kind of, you know, Zen moment on one hand. But on the other hand, let your body be your teacher, let your emotions be your teacher. They're telling you, and they are giving you feedback.

So find out which really helps you relax and open into some kind of really beautiful, peaceful place. I'm aware of a lot of meditative practices, a lot of traditions and a lot of methods, including outside Buddhism, and it's humbling to appreciate that a very large fraction of the value of mindfulness and meditation is carried by two things that are not unique to mindfulness meditation, stress relief, and positive emotion. But the fact of that doesn't diminish the impact of meditation because whatever your skillful means is to get to the ends, let's say, of stress relief and including relaxation and second positive emotion, that's going to have a lot of benefit for you. And then in addition to that, you can look for what also is available in things like mindfulness, such as the development of that, what's called ,that observing, witnessing, you know, disidentification from the streaming of consciousness or particular insights, such as insights into impermanence, transience, and so on, or other benefits in your particular practice, like a sense of union with the divine or your guru or whatever. But, yeah, but to sum up, you want to help yourself.

You know, drop into a powerful, good, deep place because that's going to have a lot more benefit for you. Yeah. It's really interesting, you know, that was one of my teachers who was actually a Swami in the yogic tradition. He always had, he really kind of hopped on with us about the point, if we ever talked about dosage or, you know, how often we should do things, he always used to say to us, look, five minutes of high quality practice is worth an entire retreat of, you know, kind of coming and going. And he was just like, you know, you, you want to be thinking about high quality practice more so than anything.

And also just, you know, respecting where you're at. But having that in mind as you do. There's no use sitting there for thinking for an hour, but lost in thoughts. I know it's a really tricky thing because mindfulness is a relationship to states, states of mind, right? It's our relationship where we're being, we're not being forgetful, we're recollected. That's out of the root meaning of the word from mindfulness and early teachings of the Buddha, it's around recollectedness.

It's our relationship to states. And sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that mindfulness is a state. That's a mistake. You know, mindfulness is a relationship to states. Okay.

It's not to be equated with bare witnessing or choiceless awareness. In bare witnessing, there's little but mindfulness present. But mindfulness is not conflated with or equated to that condition so that anything except choiceless awareness is not mindfulness. A very important point. And I think a lot of people in the modern mindfulness movement, you know, I've inadvertently really misunderstood that, and that's an important point.

But second, mindfulness is a means to an end. You know, it's not an end in itself. And I think some people get really caught up and kind of glamorize or glorify the technique of mindfulness. And there they are, you know, kind of being mindful of the streaming of consciousness and what streams through their consciousness and the overall change in their being is fairly nonexistent. And it's really okay to both be mindful while also, from time to time, as appropriate, you know, from time to time, gently encourage a relaxing of the body, an opening into warmth, warmheartedness, you know, a coming into gratitude, a letting go, an opening out into allness altogether.

Right? It's okay to do that. It doesn't, I mean, there's a place for radical choiceless awareness where you don't do anything about that. But much of the time, I think it's really okay to be both mindful, while periodically, gently inviting in a deepening of that which you would like to cultivate more of in yourself. Yeah. So some people, I've heard the same thing before where people think it's kind of mutually, you cannot be mindful and at the same time, for instance, wanting to cultivate more love or compassion or wanting to create something in your life.

So what you're saying is, and I completely 100% agree with you, that they don't have to be separate. Mindfulness is not choiceless awareness where you never cultivate, or in your language, you never pull any weeds or you never cultivate any good things in your life. They absolutely go together. And in fact, mindfulness is, I guess the first step to being able to do that in our lives. I think that's a critically important point.

I mean, if we are, again, going back old school to the original's best teachings of the Buddha, if we were to be mindful and he has this long list, you know, while walking, while sitting while lying, while talking, while eating, while going to the bathroom and he puts it in there, if we were to be mindful under all those conditions, why not be also mindful while we are, as you put it, you know, quoting me too, trying to release the negative or grow the positive. Yeah, it's really okay. Yeah. Glad you brought that up. And we spoke a little bit, we kind of just touched on briefly something that I'd love to expand on a little bit more, and that is that, you know, over time with repeated practice of mindfulness, it seems that certain insights, certain realizations about, you know, the nature of things or ourselves tend to naturally arise.

And one of those things that seems to be very common is a kind of a reorientation of our sense of self to a much more expansive and, interconnected sense of self. And I was wondering about what this is like in the brain. Do we know if there are structural changes in the brain that create this experience of a reorientation of our sense of self? I would love to hear, first of all, what are the typical insights that seem to arise out of the practice and how does that relate to our brains? It's such an interesting question. So, a couple things. So first, if you scan the brains, let's say, of long time meditation practitioners, much of the research on this has been done on Tibetan lamas, yogis, tulkus, monks, monastic nuns.

Yeah. We're talking 20,000, 30,000 hours, literally people doing twelve-year retreats, stuff like that. And the first interesting thing is their brains look almost exactly like the brain of some kind of anxious, driven, aggressive stockbroker, right? They all look the same because they are brains. Right? They're still walking or talking, they're maintaining a heart. You know, structurally, they look very, very similar.

There's some small differences that you start to see like, as I said, thicker tissue in certain parts of the brain and also differences that can make a big difference. Also this thing I said about more gamma wave activity, more sense of, you know, more integrating, synchronization of large swaths of the brain. So on the one hand, there there's a similarity, but on the other hand, there are differences that do seem to equate and to really pop out. One, is this sense of gamma wave brain activity that's very integrative. And it makes me think about, you may be familiar with this, one of the five factors of those so-called dhyanas, these non-ordinary states of awareness that constitute the wise concentration, right concentration element of the eightfold path.

Those states of awareness in the Southeast Asian Buddhist tradition that I'm most rooted in, have those states of awareness arise due to factors, right and arise to the causes. They arise dependently. Yeah. One of those five factors is called unification of consciousness, singleness of mind, which probably involves this kind of gamma wave integrative, wholeness. You start to experience, we have a poet in America called Walt Whitman.

He had a lovely line, "I am multitudes." It's a sense of accepting and embracing and including all the multitudes, you know, that you are. So there's this movement from a sense of this contracted tense, a congealed I looking out through the eyes, this entity somewhere inside. It has to defend itself and glamorize and glorify itself and claims things and identifies with things. And you start more opening out into... you are a person.

Persons certainly exist and they have duties, moral duties and also moral rights. But it's not easy to find and you cannot find it so far in neuroscience, and I think nor in your own direct experience, the full package of the presumed entity, I, that's assumed to exist in Western psychology and philosophy, and that has huge implications. So it's, we're talking here about the sense of opening out into the whole person which looks plausibly like it is supported in part by this integrative whole brain gamma wave activity. So that's the first major finding and it has a lot of implications, including training in whole body awareness in part to support those gamma wave patterns. So when you say training in whole body awareness as in having that, you know, like something like a body scan practice where you just hold the whole body in awareness? It depends what you mean by the body scan.

So usually the way attention works with the body is that if you think of awareness like a stage, right? One way to think of it is attention and intention is the spotlight on the whole stage of awareness. Attention kind of skitters around from sensation to sensation to sensation. If you're tracking your body or just simply sensations of breathing, right, or put a little differently, you know, different things get foregrounded under the spotlight moment after moment after moment. But what we can also do is to widen that spotlight to include, in a sense of gestalt awareness, a wider and wider field in which everything in it is experienced as a single percept, one single integrated experience, but has different aspects, but experienced as one thing. All right.

So it's kind of like if you go outside, you can have your gaze fled from thing to thing to thing, or you can kind of soften your gaze, yeah, and like, whoa, the whole thing. So if you practice that with your body, which is a wonderful, powerful practice, I think that one of the probable benefits of it is that it supports this gamma wave activity, which is one of the major findings of people who have, in their own report, more of a sense of selflessness and less inclination to take life so personally, et cetera. The other major finding, which has a lot of practical implications, is that when people are doing me, myself and I - I've been cheated and mistreated. When will I be loved? Why'd you treat me like that? And you know, I think this. It's my precious.

When we're doing that kind of stuff, right, we tend to activate networks in the middle of the brain, middle and cortical networks, either when we're goal-directed toward the front of the midline or when we're just kind of spacing out a daydreaming, the soulful default mode toward the back of the midline networks. Either way, there's a lot of I in those midline networks, a lot of me making and I making. All right. So on the other hand, uh, studies show, and people can check out work from a fellow named Norman Farb, F-A-R-B, his papers, but anyway, when people go more into open awareness, where they're in the present moment, they're not engaged with the future oforthe past, there's less and less sense of I, they're not taking things so personally, these midline activations reduce. They decrease.

And what starts to happen is networks on the science of the brain, especially the right side for right-handed people, which is where visual gestalt, holistic processing more resides in the right hemisphere, they tend to activate lateral networks over here. And with mindfulness training, at the end of like eight weeks of MBSR, there's more stable capacity to go into the lateral mode of present moment, more self-love, less problem solving, less abstracting, less taking things personally, really being in the now kinds of awareness. And with practice, you can strengthen those lateral modes because neurons that fire together wire together, as the saying has it. So if you stimulate those particular networks, they're going to get stronger over time, kind of like working a muscle again and again, and again. And people who are more able to drop into present moment awareness, which has a less sense of self in it, you're still a person, you're aware, you're abiding but as the multitude, but not so much as an ego.

People like that have more reliable activation of the lateral mode. And so one way into that is to do the whole body awareness, the gestalt awareness I was talking about, your training in lateral mode activation. And as you do that, what also really tends to fall away is the sense of I. There's still a person there. You're still aware.

And still able to function. Yeah, and making choices and for having perspectives and being determined and all the rest of that. But, you know, you start operating more and more in life as the whole package, the whole person you are rather than, you know, protecting and endlessly bound to this little presumed dictator, you know, the inner I. Hmm. That's really, really interesting.

That's fascinating. And again, over time, more and more practice, especially with that kind of whole body awareness, things like that, you would expect that that sense of not being such a limited little I would deepen and deepen and deepen as time goes on. Yeah. I think that's really true. There's a way in which mindfulness practice or spiritual practice altogether, contemplative practice often has a sense of rounded, of kind of grim, dour, bummer recognition of suffering.

You know, if you're not miserable, you're not really paying attention. And it's, you know, oh, happiness who needs it. It's just more poignant, like blah. And, you know, it's, what's interesting is that if you look at the people, generally speaking, who are the most developed in any tradition you care about - of Christian, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism - even people who have really gone a long way with a kind of more secular paths of self-actualization. Yeah.

And certainly Buddhism. The farther along people are, generally the happier they get. Their heart is lifted. They're inspired. They're peaceful.

They're contented. You know, it's a path, as Jack Kornfield puts it, it's a path with heart. It's a path of heart, with heart, to heart. And one of the things that's been really striking in terms of the beneficial applications of modern psychology and neuropsychology to contemplative practice is to really appreciate the healing power and the spiritually transforming power of positive emotion, of one kind or another. Peacefulness, compassion, kindness, gratitude, sense of your own worth, enjoying wholesome pleasures in life, you know.

The trick of course is to appreciate the value of positive emotion and open to it and receive it, including the positive experiences you have on the cushion or in your body scan, or in your mindfulness class, to appreciate these emotionally positive, emotionally, enjoyable experiences, to really appreciate them so they sink into your brain, right? While at the same time letting go of them and not claiming them as mine. Right. Yeah, wonderful. Well, I want to be respectful of your time. So I just have one, final kind of comment, question for you.

So it's been said that mindfulness has the capacity to change the world from the inside out one, person at a time. And so what I'd love to know is that from your perspective, from the perspective of neuroscience, but as well, just drawing on your own direct experience of what unfolds in our life when you practice mindfulness, what do you think the changes would be like on the world stage if mindfulness hit critical mass? You know, I'm talking a billion, two billion people, what would that world look like? It gets very interesting in terms of how, I mean, it's a beautiful thought and what do we mean, mindfulness? Right? And, you know, it's been pointed out that burglars are mindful, snipers are mindful. Mindfulness itself, even in Buddhist psychology in the Abhidhamma traditional early psychology. So it is a neutral mental factor. On the other hand, it is striking that this simple, neutral present moment awareness for most people, has enormous positive benefits.

They kind of ripple out from it. And I, myself reflected as have others on why would that be? Right? And I think part of it is the ways in which mindfulness by its very nature disentangles us from negative reactive patterns streaming along. We start understanding them better. And, implicit in the act of mindfulness itself is a disidentification. You kind of step out of the horror movie or the crazy explosions, action thriller and suddenly you're 20 rows back looking at it going, wow, too bad.

Whoa, that looks pretty intense. You know, that itself is huge and could really make a big difference in the world altogether. So I think that part is really true. In addition to mindfulness itself though, my own opinion and I think others probably share, is that we need to add a moral dimension to mindfulness. I think it's, I think to some extent, maybe for some people, a more moral dimension of compassion or benevolence, kind of a sense of interconnectedness.

You know, if I hurt you, it hurts me eventually. If I help you, it helps me eventually. Things like that. To some extent, kind of maybe-sort of for some people drift out of or emerge out of mindfulness itself, pure mindfulness practice. But it's a slow process.

And that's why I think that great teachers like the Buddha, who certainly appreciated mindfulness, he allocated one of the eight elements of the noble eightfold path to it had seven other elements, as well. It's the eightfold path, not the one fold path. So I think cultivating a warm heart, kindness for others, moral commitments, a sense of social justice, things like that are also really important. Yeah. Last, in addition to that, I've been really focusing on the second and third noble truths in Buddhism, which are essentially a purely psychological drive theory of suffering.

And there's nothing mystical about the four noble truths, you know. There is suffering. It's not that the entirety of life is suffering, but there's a lot of self-constructed suffering. Think of that as the first noble truth. Whoa, I'm startled by another call that came in.

But anyway, back to this. There is the first noble truth, you know, that there is constructed suffering. And then there's the second noble truth that basically says, why do we suffer? Suffering arises due to causes, causes being craving. Then third noble truth says it's possible to reduce causes. Fourth noble truth says how to do it.

Okay. What's the modern neuropsychology of craving. Why do we crave? Well, craving is a drive state that itself arises due to causes. What are the underlying causes of craving, broadly defined, right? Underlying causes of craving are internal sense of deficit or disturbance. Yeah.

So how do we remedy the internal sense of deficit or disturbance, especially for people who have every reason in the world to not experience an underlying sense of deficit or disturbance, typically people in the more advantaged populations of the world? This time, you know, at this day and age, certainly two thirds of the world's population is, if not 5/6th of it, really do have the object of conditions in their everyday life to feel fundamentally safe, fundamentally satisfied, and fundamentally connected, our three fundamental needs loosely related to the inner lizard, mouse and monkey of the reptilian brainstem, mammalian subcortex, primate human cortex. Okay. So it's not enough to just have the object of conditions outside us that address our fundamental needs. People have to actually experience deep in their bones again and again and again that their core needs are taken care of because otherwise the brain goes into its red zone. I don't care how mindful it is or how morally committed it is.

It tips into the red zone in which it starts feeling threatened and fearful and angry in terms of safety. Or, you know, driven or frustrated or disappointed in terms of satisfaction. Or, the brain tips into a sense of hurt, shame, loneliness and the resentment, tribalistic aggressiveness towards them to protect us, whatever. So mindfulness alone I think is not enough certainly. Even compassion and benevolence alone is not enough.

We need to respect the power of the caveman brain, the cavewoman brain, the Stone Age brain. And realize that this brain that we have is extremely vulnerable to tipping into the second noble truth, in which there's an internal sense of deficit and disturbance. That's why it's so important, 10,000 times, 10 seconds at a time to register the core sense of safety, satisfaction and connection, the sense of peace, contentment and love. So that as when one does that over time, one is able to deal with the challenges of life from the green zone. You know, in other words, on the basis of an internal sense of peace, contentment and love, rather than fear, frustration and heartache.

And my own view and hope like yours, which is one reason why I was very motivated to do this program with you is that if we can just get a critical mass of human brains, you know, you said a billion or two billion, I think that's the tipping point. It doesn't take a majority, but it does take a critical mass of brains that spend most minutes of most days in the green zone, drawing on mindfulness as an extraordinarily useful resource for doing that. But I think mindfulness is a necessary resource to help our planet, you know, come to a softer landing than the one it's headed toward by the end of the century. Mindfulness is a necessary condition for that, but it's not a sufficient one. We need to also add moral commitments and a process of really, really experiencing core needs met to take fuel away from those ancient fires or craving.

Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you so much, Rick. Well, thank you. That was really sweet.

It's great to talk with you, Melli. Yeah, it's been lovely to connect. And I highly highly recommend that you checkout Rick's books. They're really amazing. And they're really well-written and really, really easy to read.

So jam packed with really, really useful stuff for practical stuff for everyday people. And Rick, before we go, do you want to share a little bit with us about your online program, the foundations of well-being? I know there's probably some people are going to want to check that out. Oh, thank you. Basically, I wanted to put into one online accessible program most of what I know about transformation, happiness, healing, effectiveness in relationships and so forth. So that's what I've done.

It's jam packed with transformational, inspirational tools that are grounded in science, in the science of positive neuroplasticity. You can go through at it any pace you want. You can just focus on one thing in it. It's got amazing interviews with lots of people like Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield. I just did an interview earlier with John Ratey earlier today about exercise and going wild, getting out into nature.

And the fundamental idea is that, you know, I was just thinking, you know, for the price of one or two sessions with your therapist, you could have an incredibly rich collection of tools to transform your life with. And that's what that program is about. And if people are in financial need, we give scholarships to people. We hope that you're telling the truth that you're actually in need and you can't afford less than a dollar a day, you know, for a year. But we really want to make this available to people worldwide.

So that's what that program is. Thanks for asking me about it. Yeah, no worries. So go on and check that out. And is there anything else that you'd like to share before we close, Rick? I have a quote from the Buddha that seems very relevant here and I'd like to offer it.

It's brief. He said, "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 little fills oneself with good." Beautiful. It's a lovely note to end on.

Thank you so much for watching. And Rick, thank you so much. Go well, my friend and keep up the great work. Thank you very much.

Talk

4.7

Duration

Play in-app

Scan the following QR code with your camera app to open it on our mobile app

Included in

Recommended for you

Get Unlimited Access

Start your mindfulness journey today.

A Mindfulness Plus+ subscription gives you unlimited access to a world of premium mindfulness content.

  • Over 1,800 meditations, sleep, calm music, naturescapes and more
  • Daily mindfulness video meditations 365 days a year
  • 100s of courses and tools to help manage anxiety, sleep and stress

Email Missing

We couldn’t detect your email with the SSO provider you have selected.
or

Mindfulness Guarantee

We are here to make a positive impact on the world. We never want to sell you something that hasn’t helped you live a better life. That’s why if you’re unhappy with any purchase from us, you have 30 days to get a full refund and your money back.

If you subscribed to Mindfulness Plus+ and are unhappy with your purchase, please get in contact with us within the 30-day period and we’ll refund your purchase.


Learn more about our Mindfulness Guarantee.

Mindfulness

Bring balance into your everyday life.

We believe in a world where everybody has access to the life-changing skills of mindfulness.

  • 2,000+ Guided Meditations
  • Daily Coaching
  • Sleep Content
  • Mindful Exercises
  • Mindful Radio
  • 10+ Courses from world-class teachers

Private Browsing

Added to your cart!

Checkout

Thank you for joining us

Congratulations on your subscription! Dive into the full library and enjoy all it has to offer.

Claim your free access

Create a mindfulness account and we’ll unlock this premium session in your account forever.

or continue with
By continuing, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.

Do you already have an account?

Start a free trial to play this session

7-Days free trial, cancel anytime.

Finish personalizing your account

Complete a few quick questions to make your own personalized mindfulness plan.

Sign up or login to your mindfulness account to proceed.

or continue with
By continuing, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy.

Do you already have an account?

Mindfulness

One membership to gain access to a world of premium mindfulness content created to help you live happier and stress less.

  • 2000+ Guided Meditations
  • Courses from world-class teachers
  • Resources for Stress + Anxiety
  • Breathing exercises, gratitude practices, relaxation techniques
  • Sleep meditations, playlists, stories
  • Mindful talks, podcasts, music, nature sounds