It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us. 

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Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring HappinessBuddha’s BrainJust One Thing, and Mother Nurture.

 A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute...

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring HappinessBuddha’s BrainJust One Thing, and Mother Nurture.

 A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide.In 2016 he gave a keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. His free offerings include the Just One Thing newsletter (over 120,000 subscribers), Buddha’s Brain Facebook (over 650,000 likes), and Being Well podcast. His online Foundations of Well-Being program helps people use positive neuroplasticity to grow key inner strengths like resilience, self-worth, and compassion, and anyone with financial need can do it for free.

Dr. Hanson has spent decades helping people turn everyday experiences into lasting happiness, love, and inner peace, hardwired into the brain. He enjoys wilderness, taking a break from emails, and time with his wife and two adult children.

 

 

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Find Your North Star

dipper Find Your North Star

Where are you headed?

The Practice:
Find your North Star.

Why?

I did a meditation retreat (at Spirit Rock, wonderful place, including for workshops). One evening as we walked out of the hall after the last sit, I was feeling rattled and discombobulated. (One of the benefits of a retreat – though it can be uncomfortable – is that it stirs up of the sediments of your psyche, which can muddy your mental waters for a while.)

I looked up at the stars shining brightly in the cold clear night, and soon noticed the Big Dipper. My eyes followed its pointing to Polaris, the North Star, and a wave of easing came over me. The star felt steady and reassuring, something you could count on. It connected I think with a young part of me who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as he could locate the North Star, he could find his way out of the tangled woods and back to safety.

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Welcome Joy

deep-breaths-picture-id807152554 Welcome Joy

What’s the spark and what’s the fuel?

The Practice:
Welcome joy.

Why?

Positive emotions – such as feelings of gratitude, love, and confidence – strengthen the immune system, protect the heart against loss and trauma, build relationships, increase resilience, and promote success. Based on studies that have already been done, if a drug company could patent a happiness pill, we’d be seeing ads for it every night on TV.

Technically, emotions can be organized along two dimensions: intensity (how strong they are) and hedonic valence (how good they feel). Tranquility, for example, has low intensity but can feel really really good, a profound inner peace.

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Speak Wisely

mother-and-daughter-having-a-talk-picture-id1095960614 Speak Wisely

What are you saying?

The Practice:
Speak wisely.

Why?

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Ah, not really.

Often it’s words – and the tone that comes with them – that actually do the most damage. Just think back on some of the things that have been said to you over the years – especially those said with criticism, derision, shaming, anger, rejection, or scorn – and the impacts they’ve had on your feelings, hopes and ambitions, and sense of yourself.

Words can hurt since the emotional pain networks in your brain overlap with physical pain networks. (The effects of this intertwining go both ways. For example, studies have shown that receiving social support reduces the perceived intensity of physical pain, and – remarkably – that giving people Tylenol reduced the unpleasantness of social rejection.)

Besides their momentary effects, these hurts can linger – even for a lifetime. The residues of hurtful words sift down into emotional memory to cast long shadows over the inner landscape of your mind.

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Receive Generosity

Receive Generosity Receive Generosity

Do you accept the gift?

The Practice:
Receive generosity.

Why?

Life gives to each one of us in so many ways.

For starters, there’s the bounty of the senses – including chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, sunsets, wind singing through pine trees, and just getting your back scratched.

What does life give you?

Consider the kindness of friends and family, made more tangible during a holiday season, but of course continuing throughout the year.

Or the giving of the people whose hard work is bound up in a single cup of coffee. Or all those people in days past who figured out how to make a stone ax – or a fire, edible grain, loom, vaccine, or computer. Or wrote plays and novels, made art or music. Developed mathematics and science, paths of psychological growth, and profound spiritual practices. A few people whose names you know, and tens of thousands – millions, really – whom you will never know: each day their contributions feed, clothe, transport, entertain, inspire, and heal us.

Consider the giving of the natural world, the sound of rain, sweep of sky and stars, and majesty of mountains. How does nature feed you?

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Twelve Good Things 2019

goodthings Twelve Good Things 2019

Each year I use an issue of the Just One Thing newsletter to offer Twelve Good Things that I think are really wonderful and worth your attention.

May you and those you love and in fact the whole wide world be truly well, truly happy, and truly at peace.

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Lighten Up

barefoot-woman-walking-on-street-picture-id1090610868 Lighten Up

What’s weighing you down?

The Practice:
Lighten up.

Why?

On the path of life, most of us are hauling way too much weight.

What’s in your own backpack? If you’re like most of us, you’ve got too many items on each day’s To Do list and too much stuff in the closet. Too many entanglements with other people. And too many “shoulds,” worries, guilts, and regrets.

Remember a time when you lightened your load. Maybe a backpacking trip when every needless pound stayed home. Or after you finally left a bad relationship. Or just stopped worrying about something. Or came clean with a friend about something that had been bothering you. How did this feel? Probably pretty great.

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See Beings, Not Bodies

group-of-cheerful-indian-rural-girls-picture-id117003112 See Beings, Not Bodies

What happens when you look at someone?

The Practice:
See beings, not bodies.

Why?

When we encounter someone, usually the mind automatically slots the person into a category: older, younger, your friend Tom, the kid next door, etc. Watch this happen in your own mind as you meet or talk with a co-worker, salesclerk, or family member.

In effect, the mind summarizes and simplifies tons of details into a single thing – a human thing to be sure, but one with an umbrella label that makes it easy to know how to act. For example: “Oh, that’s my boss (or mother-in-law, or boyfriend, or traffic cop, or waiter) . . . and now I know what to do. Good.”

This labeling process is fast, efficient, and gets to the essentials. As our ancestors evolved, rapid sorting of friend or foe was very useful. For example, if you’re a mouse, as soon as you smell something in the “cat” category, that’s all you need to know: freeze or run like crazy!

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Minimize Painful Experiences

Minimize Painful Experiences Minimize Painful Experiences

Are you feeling unneeded pain?

The Practice:
Minimize painful experiences.

Why?

Painful experiences range from subtle discomfort to extreme anguish – and there is a place for them. Sorrow can open the heart, anger can highlight injustices, fear can alert you to real threats, and remorse can help you take the high road next time.

But is there really any shortage of suffering in this world? Look at the faces of others – including mine – or your own in the mirror, and see the marks of weariness, irritation, stress, disappointment, longing, and worry. There’s plenty of challenge in life already – including unavoidable illness, loss of loved ones, old age, and death – without needing a bias in your brain to give you an extra dose of pain each day.

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© © Copyright 2019. Dr. Rick Hanson

Forgive

Forgive heart Forgive

Are you holding onto feeling wronged?

The Practice:
Forgive.

Why?

Forgiveness is a tricky topic.

First, it has two distinct meanings:

  • To give up resentment or anger
  • To pardon an offense; to stop seeking punishment or recompense

Here, I am going to focus on the first meaning, which is broad enough to include situations where you have not let someone off the hook morally or legally, but you still want to come to peace about whatever happened. Finding forgiveness can walk hand in hand with pursuing justice.

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See Progress

new-born-sea-turtle-walking-to-the-sea-picture-id1163483172 See Progress

Are some things getting better?

The Practice:
See progress.

Why?

There are always things that are getting worse. For example, over the past year, you probably know someone who has become unemployed or ill or both, and there’s more carbon in the atmosphere inexorably heating up the planet.

But if you don’t recognize what’s improving in your own life, then you feel stagnant, or declining. This can foster what researchers call “learned helplessness” – a dangerously slippery slope. It typically takes only a few experiences of painful entrapment to create it but many times as many counter-experiences to undo it.

If you don’t recognize whatever is getting better in the people around you, then you might feel more disappointed or despairing than you need to feel – and they might feel not seen, criticized, or “why bother.”

If we don’t see the positive trends in our world amidst the negative ones – such as for many people, improved medical care and access to information, and less extreme poverty – then we’ll get swallowed up by all the bad news, and give up trying to make this world better.

This is not looking through rose-colored glasses. The point is to see life as it is, particularly your own life – including the progress that is occurring.

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Receive Faces

crowd Receive Faces

What do their faces say to you?

The Practice:
Receive faces.

Why?

As our ancestors evolved over millions of years in small bands, continually interacting and working with each other, it was vitally important to communicate in hundreds of ways each day. They shared information about external “carrots” and “sticks,” and about their internal experience (e.g., intentions, sexual interest, inclination toward aggression) through gestures, vocalizations – and facial expressions. Much as we developed uniquely complex language, we also evolved the most expressive face in the entire animal kingdom.

Our faces are exquisitely capable of a vast range of expressions, such as showing fear to send signals of alarm, interest to draw others toward an opportunity, or fondness and kindness to increase closeness and the sense of “us.” These expressions include seemingly universal signs of six fundamental emotions – happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust – as well as more culturally and personally specific expressions. For example, I know that very particular look that crosses my wife’s face when she thinks I’m getting too full of myself!

Of course, there is no sense in having evolved an extraordinary transmitter – the face – unless we also developed an extraordinary receiver: our remarkable capacities to recognize, sense, and infer states of mind in others from subtle and fleeting facial expressions.

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Don’t Be Intimidated

tiger-face-on-black-background-picture-id1001482448 Don’t Be Intimidated

What makes you feel threatened?

The Practice:
Don’t be intimidated.

Why?

Humans evolved to be fearful, since anxiety helped keep our ancestors alive. Consequently, we are vulnerable to being alarmed, manipulated, and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.”

This vulnerability to feeling threatened has effects at many levels, ranging from individuals, couples, and families to schoolyards, organizations, and nations. Whether it’s an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country told it’s under assault by “them” – the same human brain reacts in each one of these cases.

Therefore, understanding how your brain became so vigilant and wary, and so easily hijacked by alarm, is the first step toward gaining more control over that ancient circuitry. Then, by bringing mindful awareness to how your brain reacts to feeling threatened, you can stimulate and therefore build up the neural substrates of a mind that has more calm, wisdom, and sense of inner strength – a mind that sees real threats more clearly, acts more effectively in dealing with them, and is less rattled or distracted by exaggerated, manageable, or false alarms.

How?

The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, from ancient jellyfish to modern humans. Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard – pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

Both are important. Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of aggression inside your band, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands hurt you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll probably have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

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Try a Softer Tone

Softer tone Try a Softer Tone

How do you talk to people?

The Practice:
Try a softer tone.

Why?

Linguists like Deborah Tannen have pointed out that most communications have three elements:

  • Explicit content – “There is no milk in the refrigerator.”
  • Emotional subtext – Could be irritation, blame, accusation
  • Implicit statement about the nature of the relationship – Could be one person gets to criticize and boss around someone else

Many studies have found that the second and third elements – which I define in general as tone – usually have the greatest impact on how an interaction turns out. Since a relationship is built from interactions, the accumulating weight of the tone you use has big effects.

In particular, because of the “negativity bias” of the brain – which is like Velcro for uncomfortable experiences but Teflon for pleasant ones – a repeatedly critical, snarky, disappointed, worried, or reproachful tone can really rock a relationship; for example, John and Julie Gottman’s work has shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative one.

How?

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See What’s Likable

likeable See What’s Likable

What’s to like?

The Practice:
See what’s likable.

Why?

Liking feels good, plus it encourages us to approach and engage the world rather than withdraw from it.

Your brain continually tracks whether something is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In essence, is it a carrot, a stick, or safely ignored? Naturally, we like – we enjoy – what’s pleasant, dislike what’s unpleasant, and wish what’s neutral would get pleasant pronto.

Natural opioids – pleasure molecules – are released when you see things you like; on the other hand, disliking things can activate the neural networks of pain. Liking things feels good, so we approach them; disliking things feels bad, so we avoid them.

We are hardwired to like some things, like the sweetness of sugar, and dislike other things, like shivering from cold. But most situations are in the middle and formed of many parts. Consequently, our response to them – liking or disliking – depends a lot on what we pay attention to and on our own perspective.

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Have Compassion

compassion Have Compassion

Do You Care?

The Practice:
Have compassion.

Why?

Compassion is essentially the wish that beings not suffer – from subtle physical and emotional discomfort to agony and anguish – combined with feelings of sympathetic concern.

You could have compassion for an individual (a friend in the hospital, a co-worker passed over for a promotion), groups of people (victims of crime, those displaced by a hurricane, refugee children), animals (your pet, livestock heading for the slaughterhouse), and yourself.

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Be Friendly

befriendly Be Friendly

Friend or Foe?

The Practice:
Be friendly.

Why?

Friendliness is a down-to-earth approach to others that is welcoming and positive.

Think about a time when someone was friendly to you – maybe drawing you into a gathering, saying hello on the sidewalk, or smiling from across the room. How did that make you feel? Probably more included, comfortable, and at ease; safer; more open and warm-hearted.

When you are friendly to others, you offer them these same benefits. Plus you get rewarded yourself. Being friendly feels confident and happy, with a positive take on other people, moving toward the world instead of backing away from it. And it encourages others to be less guarded or reactive with you, since you’re answering the ancient question from millions of years of evolution – friend or foe? – with an open hand and heart.

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See the Person Behind the Eyes

behindeyes See the Person Behind the Eyes

Who is behind the mask?

The Practice:
See the person behind the eyes.

Why?

Most of us wear a kind of mask, a persona that hides our deepest thoughts and feelings, and presents a polished, controlled face to the world.

To be sure, a persona is a good thing to have. For example, meetings at work, holidays with the in-laws, or a first date are usually not the best time to spill your guts. Just because you’re selective about what you reveal to the world does not mean you’re insincere; phoniness is only when we lie about what’s really going on inside.

Much of the time, we interact mask-to-mask with other people. There’s a place for that. But remember times when someone saw through your mask to the real you, the person back behind your eyes. If you’re like me, those times were both unnerving and wonderful.

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Love the World

love_the_world Love the World

Are we really so separate?

The Practice:
Love the world.

Why?

To simplify and summarize, our brain has three primary motivational systems – Avoiding harms, Approaching rewards, and Attaching to “us” – that draw on many neural networks to accomplish their goals. 

Lately, I’ve started to realize that a fourth fundamental human motivational system could be emerging as well.

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors depended upon their habitats for food and shelter. Today, over 7 billion of us are pressing hard up against the limits of Lifeboat Earth. To survive and to flourish, cultural and perhaps biological evolution are calling us to love the world.

The world is near to hand in the food you eat, the air you breathe, and the weather and climate in which you spend your days. And then in widening circles, the world extends out to include complex webs of life and the physical characteristics of the land, the sea, and the sky.

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Leave the Red Zone

stressmeter Leave the Red Zone

Are you stressed or upset?

The Practice:
Leave the Red Zone.

Why?

There I was recently, my mind darting in different directions about projects in process, frazzled about little tasks backing up, uneasy about a tax record from 2010 we couldn’t find, feeling irritated about being irritable, hurrying to get to work, body keyed up, internal sense of pressure. Not freaked out, not running from an attacker, not suffering a grievous loss, my own troubles tiny in comparison to those of so many others – but still, the needle on my personal stress-o-meter was pegged in the Red Zone.

Then that quiet background knowing in all of us nudged me to cool down, dial back, de-frazzle, take a breath, exhale slowly, repeat, start getting a sense of center, exhale again, slow the thoughts down, pick one thought of alrightness or goodness and stay with it, exhaling worry about the future, coming into this moment, just sensations, calming, mind getting clearer, focusing on what I’ll do this day and knowing that’s all I can do, the body sense of settling down yet again sinking in to make it one bit easier to settle down the next time. Leaving the Red Zone, not all the way to Green, more like Yellow, but no longer even Orange. Whew.

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Recognize Suffering in Others

recognizesuffering Recognize Suffering in Others

Where Does It Hurt?

The Practice:
Recognize suffering in others.

Why?

We’re usually aware of our own suffering, which – broadly defined – includes the whole range of physical and mental discomfort, from mild headache or anxiety to the agony of bone cancer or the anguish of losing a child. (Certainly, there is more to life than suffering, including great joy and fulfillment; that said, we’ll sustain a single focus here.)

But seeing the suffering in others: that’s not so common. All the news and pictures of disaster, murder, and grief that bombard us each day can ironically numb us to suffering in our own country and across the planet. Close to home, it’s easy to tune out or simply miss the stress and strain, unease and anger, in the people we work, live – even sleep – with.

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30 Simple Ways to Create Balance and Connection

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