Rick Archer: Welcome to this episode of the Science and Nonduality Conference entitled “Dying and Living.” My name is Rick Archer. I am ordinarily the host of the Buddha at the Gas Pump interview series. And this talk will be aired on Buddha at the Gas Pump later on, but right now it’s part of the online SAND Conference. Each SAND Conference has a different theme, and they felt it appropriate to entitle this one “Dying and Living.”
My guest for this episode is Dr. Rick Hanson. Rick is a psychologist and New York Times bestselling author. He’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and meditation centers worldwide. His books are available in 28 languages and include Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR. That’s just a very brief bio. He has longer bios on his website, and he’s accomplished a lot in his life. I’ve interviewed Rick before, seven years ago on BatGap, and those watching this one might like to watch that one. I listened to it just yesterday, and we really covered a lot of ground.
I’ll just start with a couple of points here in light of the theme of this conference. In the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhishthira is asked, “Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?” Yudhishthira answers, “That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.” And there are also a lot of great quotes and verses in the Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Mahabharata, about death and dying and the immortality of the soul, such as, “Certain indeed is death for the born, and certain is birth for the dead. Therefore, over the inevitable, you should not grieve.” Then it goes on to explain how, even though the body dies, your essential nature does not die. I’m sure most people listening to this have heard those ideas before.
I told Rick that we only have 50 minutes, and [asked] “What would we like to talk about this time?” He said, “Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the entwining of equanimity, love, stillness amidst changes; focusing on the perennial over the ephemeral” –in other words, that which lasts over the transitory; “how our media age keeps fixating our attention to one pixel of reality after another, while obscuring the vast sweep of time and space; power of personal practice in the local while feeling helpless about so much of the global; and, of course, various states of mind–” (both laughing) that are represented by some pictures he sent me, which I think I’m not going to publish, but we can talk about those states of mind.
So where would you like to start, Rick, in terms of the points you mentioned, in terms of the theme of this Dying and Living Conference? What should we start with?
Rick Hanson: Sure. Well, just so people are not wondering, with regard to those three images I sent you, the first was Scooby Doo saying, “Ruh roh,” which I think encompasses at least part of my reactions to the current moment. Then there was a second picture which was published shortly after President Trump was diagnosed with COVID at the White House. It’s a picture of Anthony Fauci– and I’ll clean this up for a general audience– just looking into the camera with kind of a stern physician look. And it says, “I freaking told ya.” And then the last one is a picture of a powerful Wonder Woman lassoing and taming a male adversary. So I’ll just leave it at that. And I also want to add, if I could–
Rick Archer: I must confess that I just showed those three graphics as you were describing them, because a picture’s worth a thousand words.
Rick Hanson: They are indeed. Speaking of a picture, I want to show the picture– so this is just kind of a shameless– This is my additional book. It’s my sixth book, actually, Neurodharma. It’s my latest one. And I wanted to show you the image of the mountain because it illustrates this larger topic of living and dying. And you can see the subtitle as well, New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness.
Just to cut to the chase here, throughout the world, in all the sacred traditions, and certainly in secular ones, there’s been a recognition of this primary matter of personal mortality. And how do we come to terms with that? How do we come to terms with, for example, in my case, my wife and I have two adult kids. I’m really okay with my dying, I think. I’ve practiced with that a lot. I’m not okay that my kids are going to die. And so how do we come to terms with this?
My own training in the contemplative traditions is mainly rooted in the Buddhist tradition, especially the original teachings of the Buddha. He was intensely preoccupied with the impermanent nature of all of our experiences and most external conditions. And, in that, he was searching for what was a reliable, ultimately unconditioned basis for the highest happiness.
Rick Archer: That was the thing that actually got him going, wasn’t it? He came out of the palace for a little joy ride and all of a sudden saw sick people and old people and dead people for the first time in his life. And he thought, “Wait a minute. What’s wrong with these people?”
Rick Hanson: Right, as the myth has it.
Rick Archer: As the myth has it.
Rick Hanson: It’s hard to imagine that being actually real, given the realities of his time. So anyway, that’s sort of it: I think the real art of so much of life is doing what we can in the ephemeral while finding what endures, finding what is perennial. And I’ve turned a lot, as many people have, to the wisdom traditions and, in my own case, [that has been] turbocharged by modern brain science and modern psychology, for skillful means to help us both deal with the present as it changes beneath our feet while deepening our sense of a fundamental, unshakable resilience– resilient well-being in our own core.
Rick Archer: Good. My reaction is that just like the ocean, which is all choppy and wavy on the surface, there’s a deeper, unchanging value to it. That metaphor is often used in spiritual circles but it can actually become descriptive of our experience. We can very much get to a point where, in the midst of the most chaotic situation, there is a kind of imperturbable silence, and that’s where you primarily take your stand. And so the changes and turbulence are interesting, perhaps, rather than threatening.
Rick Hanson: Yeah. Yeah. What helps you rest in that stillness yourself?
Rick Archer: Well, like you, I have a longtime meditation practice. I’ve been meditating– I’m one of those 50,000-hour meditators, probably– a couple hours a day for 52 years. And it’s just gotten more and more deeply infused over the decades. I don’t want to be tooting my horn here, but you showed your book, so I’ll just say, I was not a disciplined person. I was a high school dropout and kind of a flake. But it [meditation] was so gratifying and beneficial from day one that I just stuck to it with absolute regularity.
I think there’s a lot of fear in the world now, with the virus going around and people having to– people being on enforced spiritual retreats, although they might not realize them as such– and all kinds of craziness bubbling up as people are forced to change and not having the kind of foundation of silence we were just talking about. So that brings in one of your first points here about equanimity, love, and stillness amidst changes. You’ve been reflecting a lot about that so let’s talk about that and how perhaps we can develop more of that amidst changes, so that changes are not the entirety of our reality and actually are only the waves on the surface of a much deeper ocean.
Rick Hanson: Right. So equanimity and love, equanimity and compassion really need to come together, because otherwise, equanimity is cool and detached and kind of indifferent, and without equanimity, compassion gets overwhelmed.
So how to bring those two together? And there’s a lot about that in the wisdom traditions. I’ll just mention, if I could, four practices that help to cultivate equanimity.
And by “equanimity” what I mean is a non-reactivity to one’s own experiences. If we’re relaxed or tranquil, which is great, we’re having tranquil experiences, but equanimity is a kind of spaciousness or freedom, shock absorbers, in reference to all experiences. And it disrupts the sequence that moves from the hedonic tone of experiences– sometimes called the feeling tone of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral– potentially into a sense of craving and clinging and then suffering.
So equanimity is like a shock absorber, a circuit breaker in there. How do we acquire it, though? Especially given that we’ve got a brain, a Stone Age brain in the 21st century, that’s designed to hate what is unpleasant and want possess or get more of “my precious,” what is pleasant, right? So I’ll just say four things, and any one of them are useful practices that can deepen a person’s equanimity, increasingly hardwiring it into their nervous system.
The first is to understand your own mind. Recognize that there is this tendency to be aversive toward what is unpleasant and to try to grasp what is pleasant. It’s natural and okay to cultivate what’s beneficial for other people and for ourselves, to enjoy what’s pleasurable, to manage what’s painful. But when we get pressured and intense and driven about that, that’s when we start to really suffer. So being able to understand that process in the mind is useful. At the deepest level of understanding the mind, vipassana, is insight into the nature of all experiences as fundamentally insubstantial and cloud-like rather than brick-like– in other words, empty of substance, empty of identity. Our experiences are transient, they’re always changing, and that deepening insight, increasingly real-time in life, really serves equanimity.
So that’s the first: Understand your mind.
Rick Archer: Yeah. And I’m sure you would agree that this equanimity and this sort of recognizing the ephemeral nature of experiences is not something you have to sort of do all day long. It can become deeply ingrained into your very nature, so like somebody like LeBron James doesn’t have to think, “Well, how am I gonna shoot this basketball?” He’s done it so much that it’s just natural to him. These qualities you’re talking about here can become our default mode of functioning.
Rick Hanson: Exactly right. You remind me of this teaching from Milarepa, who was looking back on his life as a great Tibetan sage, his life of practice, and he said, “In the beginning, nothing came. In the middle, nothing stayed. In the end, nothing left.” That is such a lovely description. We could apply it to almost any type of learning in the broadest sense – cultivation, healing, development. As you know, I’m very interested in positive neuroplasticity, the transition from the second to the third stage that Milarepa is speaking to there. In the second stage, we can have experiences if they’re prompted or we’re deliberate about it, but it’s not yet innate in us. Then gradually there’s that movement from state to trait, from the second stage to the third stage, so that eventually nothing leaves and we’re rested in trait equanimity, trait compassion, and trait happiness.
Rick Archer: In several of your books, and in our last interview, we discussed the notion that spiritual practice, over time, transforms the brain and transforms its functioning. The brain is always going be plastic, but that transformation is also somewhat stable, right? The brain learns to function in a much more coherent way and much more invincibly, so that over time, even the most potentially traumatic experiences don’t really perturb one’s inner state.
Rick Hanson: That’s exactly right. And one thing that’s really remarkable is how we ourselves can be active agents inside ourselves in cultivation. In Sanskrit it is “bhavana.” In other words, we can steepen our rate of healing and growing in all kinds of ways by doing little things inside our mind. One of the simplest of all is to simply stay with a beneficial experience for a breath or longer before skittering onto the next thing. There’s that famous saying, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So the longer we keep them firing, the more they’re going to tend to hardwire the beneficial experience we’re having at the time as a growing quality in ourselves, a growing trait or characteristic inside ourselves.
Hey, you want to hear the second thing about equanimity?
Rick Archer: Yeah, sure.
Rick Hanson: So second, really reflecting on the brain’s negativity bias and just so much of life, [my] second suggestion: Really manage aversion. In other words, be really aware of the ways in which we acquire anxiety or irritation or feelings of helplessness in particular.
We start getting potentially primed– I recognize this in myself– by the news we don’t like. While it’s really about the news and so forth, that growing crankiness and frustration and “ruh roh” inside ourselves [can lead to] the ways in which the longing for justice can become a craving for vengeance. All that inside ourselves primes us so that then when, in my case, my wife tells me how to load the dishwasher more effectively, more skillfully, something happens.
So really manage aversion. The brain has a negativity bias. It’s like Velcro for bad experiences, but Teflon for good ones. So it’s very important, I think, to be really on top of that sense of irritability or anxiety, which partly means coping and taking action as best we can, including to help the world become a better place for everybody, not just oneself.
So that would be my second suggestion for equanimity: Manage, really take aversion seriously and take anxiety, anger, and helplessness really seriously.
Rick Archer: Yeah. I have a thought on the managing of aversion, but I think I can actually add that when we get to the news media fixating our attention to one pixel of reality, and I’ll bring the point up then.
Rick Hanson: Okay, that’s perfect. And there’s a lot of science so I’m summarizing a lot of stuff about how we can become sensitized to the negative. It’s a little bit like if you drag your fingernail across your hand once, that’s no big deal. By the thousandth time, your hand wants to pull away. You get sensitized. And we can, unfortunately, develop a brain, through the action of the stress hormone cortisol, that’s increasingly prickly, reactive, depressive, anxious, which then predisposes us to get a little more vulnerable to difficult experiences the next day, in a vicious kind of cycle.
Rick Archer: One thing I always experienced from the day I learned to meditate was that, when I came out of meditation, everything looked fresher. My perception was brighter. I felt more rested. It’s like there had been a– I pushed the reset button, so to speak, on my nervous system. And I found over the years that that’s cumulative, that you can actually, each day, dissolve more– What is the a quote from you in here, some quote that I pulled from your book about how crud kind of builds up in the nervous system over time. I think you actually might’ve used the word crud. But my experience was that you can actually dissolve more crud on a daily basis than you tend to accumulate on a daily basis. Therefore, your total crud volume diminishes.
Rick Hanson: Very good, yeah.
Rick Archer: And also, your susceptibility to new crud improves. Or, you become less susceptible, so that things which once might’ve stressed you out, you just take them in stride.
Rick Hanson: Oh, I think that’s totally true. You know, in the end, nothing leaves, right? And people who are really far along in practice, like farther up the mountain of awakening, let’s say, than I am, [when] I look at them I see this undisturbable imperturbability while feeling everything they’re feeling. The joy, sorrow, fear, anger, outrage, calm– whatever they’re feeling in the core of it all–they have a sense of a peaceful abiding. And that’s something we can all cultivate in ourselves.
Rick Archer: I’ll give you a real quick analogy.
Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Rick Archer: It’s said that a highly stressed nervous system, which hasn’t undergone any of the culturing that we were talking about, is like stone: You can etch a mark in it but it’s hard to etch the mark very deeply. In other words, it’s hard to have a really rich experience, but whatever mark you make stays. A little bit more refined nervous system is maybe like sand: You can make a deeper impression and it also goes away more quickly. More refined is like water: Deep impression, goes away immediately. Very refined is like air: You can experience very– put your arms right through it– and yet, poof, no impression is left.
Rick Hanson: What a beautiful sequence. I’ve never heard that before. That’s fantastic.
Rick Archer: You can use it.
Rick Hanson: I’ll probably mention it at some point, yeah.
So the third suggestion for equanimity, very important: Grow the good.
I think so much of life is really summarized in terms of “Deal with the bad, turn to the good, take in the good.” There’s nothing in what we’re talking about that’s about overlooking harms being done to others. There’s nothing in what we’re saying about overlooking one’s own privilege and just thinking, “Because you were born on third base that somehow you hit a triple.” No. And so we have to deal with the bad, but on the other hand, if that’s all we do, we get worn down. Increasingly, we’re no use to others or to ourselves. In fact, by turning to the good, we equip ourselves, we strengthen ourselves, so that we can increasingly deal with the bad. And I’m using the terms good and bad just pragmatically here. It’s also very important when we turn to the good, in other words, when we recognize what is working alongside what’s not working, when we recognize the good in ourselves amidst whatever else is present, the good in other people amidst whatever else is present, it’s also really important to take it in – to let the learning land. In other words, to encourage that movement from state to trait. When we’re experiencing some sense of reassurance, say, or some sense of our own skillfulness or moral commitment or inner peace, slow it down. Keep those neurons firing together so you can actually marinate in that experience so it really becomes a part of yourself. That for me is the third big headline around equanimity.
And then the fourth one is find what endures, that movement from the perennial to the ephemeral. I just think about the ways in which, speaking of myself, I’m really caught up in the latest news. I mean, the pace of news and events – it’s a fire hose. I mean, I’ve lived quite a while at this point– I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s. While I saw a lot of tumult, it was nothing like this today. The bizarreness, the whipsawness, the sense of the bottom falling out of the country in a whole new kind of way, is really weird. Right? On the other hand, we can get so caught up in the short-term, the immediate, the immediate pixel that’s barraging us from the media, that we can lose sight of, for example, nature. Nature’s enduring. Nature as nature is enduring. Relationships, relatedness. Here it is. You and I are swinging back, talking with each other after seven years. That’s pretty cool, even though we don’t know each other well, still, there’s an enduring here. And practice. I think of practice as the ultimate refuge because things will happen – things will come and go, but we can never be defeated in the core of our being, in the innermost temple, to practice. No one can stop us from practicing in the core of our being, and no one can do it for us there.
Rick Archer: Yeah, that was one of my early realizations when I began practice, I thought, “Wow, this really works! And if I just stick to this, things are just gonna keep getting better.” I wasn’t the type to make firm commitments, but I made one because it was so dramatic.
And the thing about the pixel, the media focusing our attention on one pixel of reality while losing the big picture– I think that the best antidote to that is, again, within one’s own awareness. Because deep within we actually do have infinite consciousness, we could call it, or infinite awareness, unboundedness, broad comprehension. And yet, through the routines and conditioning of life, we get narrowed down more and more, not only through the media, but anything we focus on is only a small, little peephole of reality. However we can culture within ourselves the capacity to maintain that unbounded awareness in the midst of focusing sharply, as sharply as we wish, piloting a 747, if that’s our job. And then, it’s a completely different orientation to anything we put our attention on– news or walking in the woods, or anything we do in life.
Rick Hanson: Oh, completely true. One of the things that is a recent finding in brain science that resonates with many traditional practices is the value of widening your view. Literally, in the room. For example, if we’re looking close, like we do so much these days– down at our phone, at a screen, like you and I are doing right now– that naturally activates perceptual processing systems in the brain that are termed egocentric. They’re not mean, they’re not selfish, they’re not narcissistic, they’re just self-referential, which makes sense if it’s near. We’re talking about systems that evolved over 600 million years, back in Jurassic Park, then the Stone Age, then Game of Thrones. Right? So, these forces or these factors inside us are to help us survive. So near at hand, friend or foe, you need to know.
But you can watch, you can just do it in your experience: If you shift your gaze out to the horizon, or you look 10 feet away, or even above, that naturally starts to engage more ancient, more fundamental neural perceptual circuitry that takes in things as a whole, impersonally, without privileging your own perspective. Just the jungle as it is, right? The Serengeti Plains as they are, distinct from what they mean to me. And we naturally move back and forth between those two perspectives – egocentric, and the second one’s called allocentric. Both are important in life, but so much of our culture and everyday experience is a training in the egocentric, in part because most of us don’t do things, like being in the wild or in nature, where we’re extending our gaze to the horizon routinely, where we’re looking a far distance routinely. That’s why I think it’s especially important to look for little ways to widen your view, to get that bird’s eye perspective, to get a sense of your body as a whole, for example, the room as a whole, or the whole situation as a gestalt, because that does really good stuff neurologically, including quieting inner chatter and the voice of me, myself, and I.
Rick Archer: Yeah, I know you like to hike and climb up mountains and stuff, and I really like that too. And I’m sure everyone listening to this has had the experience of standing on a beach and looking out over the ocean, or lying on your back on a summer evening and looking at the stars, and that kind of thing. It really has a profound effect, as you were just saying. I remember one time we came back from a one month camping trip where we had been out in Colorado or someplace hiking in the mountains and I was standing in line at a restaurant, and somebody looked at me and said, “You look like you’ve been experiencing something really beautiful recently.” They could just see it, you know?
Rick Hanson: The glow is coming off of you.
Rick Archer: Yeah.
Rick Hanson: That’s cool. Yeah.
Rick Archer: But if we live in New York City and we don’t have the opportunity to be in the mountains or look at the stars or anything very often, again, there are practices that one can do that can allow your awareness to just sink into unboundedness, right in your own little meditation closet or whatever. You don’t need special circumstances.
Rick Hanson: That’s great. So those are my four equanimity suggestions: Understand your mind, really deal with aversion, grow the good, and find what endures.
Rick Archer: Among the notes you sent me, “…the power of personal practice in the local while feeling helpless about so much of the global….” I guess maybe a lot of people do feel kind of helpless these days. Elaborate on that.
Rick Hanson: Well, like many, many people, I’m sure, my heart’s been really heavy at this time. I mean, I live in America. I think in much of the world there are many reasons to have a heavy heart. And we do what we can about the bigger picture. I think that’s really important. Also, like many, I’ve been mobilized in the last year, or the last several years, to do more than I’d been doing for the sake of the greater good. We do that but clearly there’s a limit, for most of us at least, on the impacts we can have out at the global. It’s kind of wild to appreciate that, even while craziness is going down at the global, in terms of global warming, or in terms of the elite power at the highest levels of government around the world, only about 5% of the people on earth live under any kind of functioning democracy. So imagine what the systems are like for 90, 95% of the people in the world.
So my point is that it’s kind of amazing is to realize that most people throughout history have lived under the thumb of some authoritarian jerk or another. Certainly since agriculture came in 10,000 years ago and, with it, surpluses of food that enabled surpluses of wealth and power. So, one thing that I think is really important to realize is that it’s okay to enjoy the local. It’s okay to enjoy the food on your plate, the laughter of children. By enjoying it less, it’s not going to help global suffering diminish. By enjoying it more, it’s not going to increase suffering in the world. And it’s really important– particularly for people who perhaps are very saturated with news about the global, the big picture, and so forth– to realize, “Okay, that’s true. I’m doing what I can. And meanwhile, it’s okay to live well locally.” It’s not a betrayal of the greater good. In fact, by living well locally, as best I can– and I want to be crystal clear about the privilege that comes with being white and male, and professional, and so forth– but in whatever ways one can– I’ve spent time in Haiti, I’ve spent time in India and Bhutan– and the people who often are grappling with really tough conditions know better than I the importance of appreciating the local. The sip of water, this laughter of a child, this funny thing a dog does– And I think it’s really important to reserve the right for oneself to be able to do that, especially these days.
Rick Archer: Yeah, if someone doesn’t know how to swim, then they’re not going to be very useful if someone is drowning. And I think we have to have our own life on a kind of a solid foundation of contentment or fulfillment in order to be able to radiate that to others. Even if you were to join the Peace Corps or something like that, if you’re all stressed out and unhappy and disharmonious because of your inner state, then you’re not going to be very effective in your tasks in the Peace Corps.
I think there’s a deeper mechanics too, which is that there’s a kind of a collective consciousness that is hierarchical – there’s world consciousness, national consciousness, state consciousness, and so on. But individuals are the units of it, the way individual trees are the units of a forest. And if the individual trees are all withered and dry and gray then you fly over the forest and that’s the way it’s going to look. And it’s going to be susceptible to forest fires. But if each tree is nourished from its roots and is nice and healthy and green, then you’re going to have a green forest. So, on the one hand, spiritual people are sometimes accused of being self-indulgent or self-serving or self-centered or something: “It’s all about me, me, me.” But, on the other hand, there’s a balance where you engage in enough self-development to be able to, as the saying goes, “My cup runneth over,” to be able to overflow for others.
Rick Hanson: That’s totally true.
Rick Archer: Ah, I know what I wanted to ask you about. I was having lunch with my wife today and we were talking about this interview and what we’re going to talk about, and we’re talking about “spiritual people.” And she said, “Maybe ask him, ‘Why is it that spiritual people are so often so crazy?’ I mean, they get obsessive, neurotic, and you go into any kind of sangha or any kind of group or spiritual organization or something, and there’s a lot of nuttiness going on.” Is it that nutty people are attracted to spirituality or that spirituality makes you nutty? Or do you have some other idea?
Rick Hanson: Well, I am a licensed psychologist, so– And it’s also true that I’ve spent a lot of time in the human potential movement, including very intensive forms of personal practice and [there are] some spiritual traditions in my own history, involving a guru, that are pretty wild. So I have some background in this territory. My hunch actually is that people are drawn to deep spiritual practice, some of whom are already a little unstable or eccentric, and they’re drawn to the practice because it speaks to them– much of ordinary life doesn’t particularly interest them very much– and it serves them. And some of them become really remarkable teachers on the one hand. I think there might be a little bit of a so-called selection bias, very, very slightly. On the other hand, many people who are highly esteemed teachers at this point will talk about their background of depression, drug addiction, fairly serious mental disturbance, quasi-psychotic states in their 20s, let’s say. And yet, if you’re with them– and they really are walking their talk, in a monastic setting they’re being observed 24/7, things are pretty transparent, particularly these days with social media– you get a sense of who’s got feet of clay and who is, on the other hand, the real deal. It could take time for that sense to emerge, but [it] still tends to come out over time. These are people who are really in good shape. I think practice has really served them.
Rick Archer: Yeah, it’s healed them.
Rick Hanson: Yeah, yeah, so I’m good with that. And I think it’s important, too, to appreciate– I mean, we could put on a spiritual act—[however] like Chogyam Trungpa taught, it’s important to cut through spiritual materialism.
I grew up in LA [Los Angeles] and the human potential movement there had a lot of feeling like “My brand is authenticity.” Right? You would meet people at a party and you suddenly realize, after 20 minutes of what seemed like a real nice heart-to-heart mutual conversation, that they were subtly trying to enroll you in their training and holding themselves up as an exemplar of how wonderful their training was, and you ought to learn how to be more like them. And I think that’s really BS, ta-da. On the other hand, I think it’s really easy to take shots at small exceptions, like that small, small, small, important, but very small percentage of people who have a serious psychotic issue on a long-term meditation retreat. That’s a real issue, we have to screen people and be aware of it, but it’s very uncommon. And it would be really inappropriate to generalize the risks of a breakdown experience in an intensive meditation retreat for a very small percentage of people to wholesale cautions about an everyday practice of mindfulness and maybe a 10 or 20, 30-minute practice of meditation occasionally. So I’ve just seen that a lot. People can make their bones and rise up the ladder, rise in the ecosystem of fame, if you will, the ecology of fame, by trying to bring down the big kids. I just think we have to be careful about that. I’ve seen a lot of that in academia. You see it in academia, you see it elsewhere as well.
Rick Archer: Okay, I have a related question which is that there’s a term in vogue these days, “conspirituality,” and it refers to the confluence of conspiracy theories and the spiritual community. Recently, the New York Times and Rolling Stone did an article referring to a yoga teacher named Seane Corn who was the only one willing to put her name to a statement that was made by a bunch of people in the wellness community about how shocked and disturbed they were about the degree to which conspiracy theories in general, and QAnon in particular, were infiltrating the wellness community. There’s also a podcast that I listened to called Conspiratuality.net—And I got an email last night from a friend who was just talking to friends in Sedona who told him that in their estimation about 75% of the people in Sedona, the New Agey types, are now into QAnon and think that Trump is the savior and so on. So a lot of people are concerned about what appears to be kind of a pandemic within a pandemic that’s afflicting the spiritual community where people are impressionable and vulnerable, susceptible… They don’t have enough, what would it be, critical thinking? Or– we were talking about equanimity earlier– and they’re getting brainwashed, as spiritual people often have in cults, by a kind of a global cult. And it’s causing a disruption. So I know Maurizio and Zaya, the hosts of the SAND Conference, are concerned about this too. Do you have any thoughts on that phenomenon as a spiritual practitioner and psychologist?
Rick Hanson: I have not personally bumped into it in my own activities, while at the same time, I completely believe you, what you’re saying here. I was in what I call half-a-cult in my 20s —
Rick Archer: Cult light?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, cult light. Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, it was pretty intense. And one of the things that was very humbling for me as a, by nature, stubborn, independent, autonomous kind of person – who grew up in a dominating parental environment with well-intended, but dominating type parents, I was blown away by how much I drank the Kool-Aid. By how much I bought into it and the influence of social pressure and groupthink and group pressure. So I do have some sense of what people are talking about. To me, the crux of the matter is grounded in the teaching of both Buddhism and science, and I think other perennial traditions: Are we grounded in reality as it is? Or are we deluded in some way? Is there an openness to fact? What are the actual facts? And an interest in actual factuality—
One of the fundamental characteristics of any kind of cultic group is that it’s in a bubble. It just will not alter its fundamental paradigm based on factual information, and that’s just the characteristic [of a cult]. The long-term healing of that, or addressing of that, is to have the moral courage in our culture to really punish those who freeload the truth. What I mean by this is that what enabled altruism to emerge was that people who would rip others off were identified and, if need be, punished inside hunter-gatherer bands. So without the recognition of freeloading, and punishment for it, there’s no basis for altruism. That’s why altruism is so rare in the animal kingdom. Humans are very unusual in that regard. And I think in the social media milieu that we have these days, there’s no punishment for disinformation, misinformation. In fact, you can get famous for being a wonderful troll. So I think it’s really important for people of courage to just be matter of fact about, “No, that isn’t true” and to be straightforward about that and promote that kind of grounding in the truth rather than in delusion.
Rick Archer: Yeah, I remember Kellyanne Conway was talking to Jake Tapper of CNN, I believe, and he said, “Well, such and such is a fact.” And she said, “Well, these are alternative facts.” And he said, “Alternative facts? What are you saying?” I think that one way of defining spirituality and rising to enlightenment is coming to know the truth, what the ultimate reality is. That’s what the Buddha and all the others have taught. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” So in this day and age with all the stuff flying around in social media and on TV and in the various regular media, it’s getting really hard for people to know what the truth is. Have you seen that documentary “The Social Dilemma” yet?
Rick Hanson: No, I know the territory of it, and it’s deeply alarming.
Rick Archer: It’s amazing, yeah.
Rick Hanson: But I want to just interject there–
Rick Archer: Yeah, go ahead.
Rick Hanson: Really, anyone who wants to know something factual, the basic, what is the factuality of it, can usually find out in 10 minutes or less online from multiple credible sources that converge on something. So, for example, COVID is a real virus. There is a real plague spreading through us, and it’s well-managed by doing certain things that countries like Mongolia got on top of, and it’s not well-managed in the United States. We’re the worst managed of any developed country in the world. That is a fact, and it’s not hard to discern that if someone has the desire to discern it. That, I think, is a really important point. Some incredibly subtle nuance about the details of the Russian disruption campaign in the 2016 election might be harder to pin down. But the big picture, clearly, is they attacked our democracy and Trump amplified it to his own benefit. That’s just an undeniable fact at this point.
Rick Archer: Yeah. You ought to get out more. I get these emails every day or I see it on YouTube and Facebook and whatnot, people saying, “COVID is a hoax.”
Rick Hanson: Oh, yeah. I get them too.
Rick Archer: And “Fauci is the devil,” and “Bill Gates is trying to microchip everybody.” A lot of people look at that stuff and say, “Oh, yeah, COVID is a hoax.” “They’re gonna microchip me.” They just sort of don’t think twice. They accept it.
Rick Hanson: Right. What I would say to that, and this is something that is really clear in the Buddhist teachings, and it’s certainly been really clear in every teacher I’ve ever had: At the end of the day, I don’t know– I could say it in different ways, I’m thinking also of my rock climbing guides– You know, at the end of the day, each of us has to do our own work. There’s no substitute for personal character. There’s no substitute for personal virtue. This doesn’t mean getting all righteous and high and mighty about it. But there’s just no substitute for whether a person, at a moral level inside themselves, deep down, wants to know what’s true, and is willing to tolerate the discomfort of having to, as Jean Piaget talked about [regarding] different kinds of learning, accommodate their paradigms to the new information, not just assimilate the information into an existing framework without budging their framework. At the end of the day, there’s no way around it: People are making choices. You and I are making choices with fallible minds in a changing world to try to understand what’s true. And when I see people like you’re describing, what’s really clear to me [is that] they don’t want to know what’s true, right? Or they want to believe in something that’s a kind of a fairy tale for whatever personal gratification that is.
Rick Archer: Of course, they don’t think it’s a fairy tale. They think that, “Oh, now I know what’s true, and all these other sheep are being deluded by the mainstream media,” and so on. “Wake up, do your research, find out, learn what I have learned now.” And it’s such a tricky thing. It’s fascinating in a way, but it’s rampant. I have a Google alert for QAnon, and I get an email a day with dozens of articles that are being written about it. It’s kind of this proliferation of craziness that’s sweeping the world.
Rick Hanson: Yeah. Right now, I’m reading an amazing book. If you like fiction, it’s so well-written. It’s beautiful. It’s called Wolf Hall. It’s about the time of King Henry VIII. Remember him, King Henry VIII? Many wives? And the central character is Thomas Cromwell, who I knew almost nothing about. And it’s beautifully written. What it reminds me of is the ways in which, really throughout history, there have been these bizarre cults who believed weird stuff. Right? “The end of the world is coming,” or “The millennium is coming and it’s all going to change,” and all this sort of stuff. So you’re right, I think you’re exactly right. There is some vulnerability in us to this kind of thing. And gosh, at the end of the day, what can we do about it? Right? I think, meanwhile, we can honor and support the institutions that promote truth. Academic environments generally, science, research, journalism, nonprofits who are doing the best they can to surface what’s actually true.
I was at a dinner party, as it turned out, with our local congressman a couple of weeks after the election in 2016. And we were all just staring at him like deer in the headlights. Like, “Oh my God, what do we do now?” And he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Send money to lawyers.”
Rick Archer: What did he mean by that?
Rick Hanson: Yeah, he said, “Send money, support those in the justice system, such as the ACLU, or other well-intended nonprofits,” environmental groups, let’s say, who are an independent agent of positive development. Right? So that’s just one of many things we can do to support fact-finding and truth-telling, inquiry, investigations, depositions, Freedom of Information Act inquiries, things like that. Support lawyers in lawsuits that, over time, put the truth on the table. So that’s, I think, among many things we can do to support truth-telling, ultimately.
Rick Archer: Somebody sent me Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” the other day, and the first line of it is, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” So perhaps, since we’ve gotten off on this theme and we’re almost out of time, that could be our wrap-up point: We need to learn to develop the discernment internally so that, in a crazy world, we are not swept up in the craziness. And there’s a verse in the Yoga Sutras which talks about something called ritambhara prajna, which is said to be that level of intellect which knows only truth, where you can really discern the truth of things. It’s considered to be an essential qualification for spiritual enlightenment. So I would say that anyone listening to this, if they are sincerely interested in spiritual development, keep that in mind. Question your questions, or question your convictions, and do what you can to continue to develop discernment. And if you see something on the internet that sounds convincing, maybe find an alternate viewpoint as well and see which one holds the most water.
Rick Hanson: I think that if multiple university-centered organizations of one kind or another, multiple established medical, scientific organizations, multiple mainstream news sources, the BBC, the New York Times— Wikipedia, actually, is a remarkably good source of information that’s very accessible very quickly. Really, within 10 minutes, it’s amazing the kinds of things you can find out if you actually want to know what is actually the case. And maybe we can finish on something a little more spiritual?
Rick Archer: Sure.
Rick Hanson: I was thinking about the topic of living and dying, and one of the things we need to be not deluded about and [need to] see clearly is the eventual passing of our own body while living well meanwhile.
I was thinking about the topic of living and dying. One of the things we need to be not deluded about, to see clearly, is the eventual passing of our own body while we are living well in the present. I think about a tombstone epitaph that said essentially, “This person lived until he died,” “…lived until she died,” “…lived until they died.” And I think that’s the opportunity for us all to be really clear about the ephemeral nature of passing phenomena while rested in the eternal now. The eternal present that endures.
Rick Archer: And as we said in the beginning, that’s not just a philosophical exercise or something. It’s something that can become grounded in your experience in a very visceral, concrete way, and which correspondingly is a whole style of brain functioning that can get cultured over the years.
Rick Hanson: I was told that as the previous Karmapa, the 16th maybe, the previous one, was dying, he was in his last days, and his students, who just loved him, of course, were so stricken and sad. And to comfort them, he said something that just blew my mind. He looked at them and said, “Don’t worry, nothing changes.” And to get that, “Don’t worry, nothing changes–” What is it that doesn’t change? “Don’t worry, nothing changes.” It reminds me of the line from T.S. Eliot, in one of his poems, he says, “… Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still…”
Rick Archer: Good.
Rick Hanson: And right there, we have equanimity and compassion together, right? “…Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still…”
Rick Archer: Great. Well, we’ll have to end with that. It’s too bad we only have 50 minutes. I could go on with you much longer.
Rick Hanson: Oh, pleasure. Yeah.
Rick Archer: It’s enjoyable talking to you. So, thanks so much, Rick, for participating in this. And thanks to those who are participating in the SAND Conference, and later on, to those who happened to watch this on Buddha at the Gas Pump. And take care, all of you. Sit still.
Rick Hanson: That’s right. Greetings to everyone.
Rick Archer: Yes, thanks.
Rick Hanson: Thank you, Rick.
Rick Archer: Bye-bye