Rick Hanson Transcript

Rick Hanson Interview

Rick Archer: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and my guest today is Rick Hanson, Ph.D. I’ll call you Rick just for informality’s sake. Rick is a neurophysiologist and New York Times best-selling author. His books include “Hardwiring Happiness,” which I’ve been reading, “Buddha’s Brain,” “Just One Thing,” and “Mother Nurture.” Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and an advisory board member of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he’s been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard and taught in meditation centers worldwide. He has several audio programs and his free “Just One Thing” newsletter, to which I’m a subscriber, has over 100,000 subscribers. So Rick, thank you.

Rick Hanson: Rick, it’s a pleasure to be here at the Gas Pump.

Rick Archer: We’ve got Rick squared today. If people are regular listeners to this show, they’ve heard me say a number of times that there’s a physiological component to everything that happens in the mind, and that every fleeting thought must have some sort of corresponding activity in the brain, and that certainly something so major as enlightenment or profound spiritual awakening must have rather significant physiological correlates, particularly in the brain. You’re a specialist in that, and that’s what excited me about doing an interview with you. So we’ll go around that theme, but I thought maybe I’d have you start by saying the things that you’ve probably already said in 1,000 other interviews and lectures, just to give people a sort of a framework for understanding where you’re coming from, and then hopefully we’ll dig up some new territory for you to explore, although there’s nothing new under the sun.

Rick Hanson: Well, if I get your idea– Maybe the quick summary is captured in this famous saying in neuroscience, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, the brain is designed to be continually changed by the information flowing through it, that information being– the entirety of that information being– what neuroscientists generally mean by the word “mind.” That’s a lowercase “m,” mind. I personally think there is some kind of transcendental X factor involved in reality altogether but that said, inside the natural frame, what we’re left with is this fundamental notion that all mental activity– thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, sufferings, and awakenings– are based on underlying patterns of neural activity and repeated patterns of mental activity, entailing repeated patterns of neural activity, gradually change neural structure and function. That’s the basic idea of what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, which in a grounded way, in terms of actual practice– besides being intellectually cool– bringing it down to earth in our actual practice, the takeaway point is that the brain is continually shifting based on where we rest our attention and what we do with what’s in the field of attention, for better or worse. And we’ve got a brain that, for evolutionary reasons, is biased toward over-learning from negative experiences. There’s this two-stage process of transformation, or learning to walk instead of crawl, memorizing the multiplication tables, or learning how to manage your meditation in a more subtle and refined way. This two-stage process of learning involves activation and installation. We activate a mental state and then we turn it into– or we install it eventually– as an enduring neural trait, for better or worse. So to summarize it: For me practice is very much about the disengagement from the process of negative states becoming negative traits– fostering negative states in a vicious cycle, which the brain is prone to due to its negativity bias. And on the other hand,  to implement the process of turning positive mental states into installed, lasting, wholesome, enduring neural traits, which then foster more positive states of mind, including compassion, loving kindness, concentration, absorption, insight, liberating relationships to experience altogether, and so forth. For me what’s really interesting is how to get good at working that process that is the underlying neuropsychological basis for the path of awakening.

Rick Archer: So you’d say that any spiritual practitioner is actually engaged in a process of sculpting his brain, as it were. And a pro, like the Buddha or Ramana Maharshi or someone, has sculpted his brain to a profound degree.

Rick Hanson: Yes, and that sculpting is really subtle. If you take the brains of people with 10,000 or even 50,000 lifetime hours of meditative practice, and you compare them with novice meditators– or even people that are more intermediate, but we wouldn’t think of as profoundly awakened– the large-scale structure of the brain is exactly the same. There’s some subtleties in terms of greater activations of certain types of patterns. I can get into some of that if you like, but it’s not a massive change. What has particularly interested me is to try to operationalize the third and second noble truths in Buddhism. In other words, the second truth being that craving– which is a drive state based on an underlying felt sense of deficit and disturbance– which drives suffering and harm, from subtle to gross– And then also, what does it actually mean? With this animal brain– with an inner lizard, mouse, and monkey wrestling around inside it– what does it actually mean to have a brain that’s not engaged with subtle forms of craving? In other words, a brain that’s no longer involved with resisting what’s unpleasant, grasping after what’s pleasant, and clinging to what’s heartfelt. That, I think, remains a mystery because we have a brain that is designed to crave and suffer in order to survive. What radical transformation must occur deep down, probably in the subcortical regions of the brain, quite linked to the brain stem, deep down in there? These are the basic– this is the basic machinery under the hood of drive. What must happen down there so that there is a brain that literally, in the operational definition of awakening in Buddhism, is no longer capable of greed for what’s pleasant, and hatred for what’s unpleasant, and if I might add, no longer capable of heartache with regard to issues in relationships? I think that’s still quite a mystery but it’s one that really interests me a lot. How do we gradually decondition the brain so it’s no longer inclined toward that kind of craving that leads to suffering and harm?

Rick Archer: When you’re talking about understanding what’s going on in the brain, you’re not talking about post-mortem. You’re not talking about autopsies. You’re talking about the kinds of things that can be measured with EEG, and MRI, and stuff like that. Right?

Rick Hanson: Yeah, exactly right. For example, the simple process of noting your experience, just labeling it, “Oh, tension,” “Joy,” “Irritation,” “Worry.” “Oh, my mother material.” Whatever– That process alone increases activation in the executive regions of the brain just behind the forehead, and it quells activation. It reduces and calms. It quiets. It tranquilizes activation in the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, and that’s visible in MRI scans. That’s got a lot of practical value. Another thing that has practical value, I think– And this is what my book’s about, “Hardwiring Happiness.” It’s about internalizing repeatedly the felt sense of “core needs met” to gradually decondition that inclination toward drive, that inclination toward grasping after what’s pleasant, resisting what’s unpleasant, and clinging to what’s heartfelt– in a word “craving” properly defined– through repeatedly letting it really sink in that you’re in a fundamentally peaceful, contented, and loving state of mind in terms of our three core needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection. As you internalize that again and again and again, there’s less and less underlying sense of deficit and disturbance, which is the basis for craving that leads to suffering and harm. That itself is obviously not awakening, but it’s a major aspect of it that really gets at the root, I think– Certainly, this is the root view in Buddhist psychology, that the root of suffering is based on motivation. It’s based on our states of drive and so forth. And what I’ve gotten very interested in is how to get to the root of things and really operationalize the third noble truth in Buddhism.

Rick Archer: The third noble truth is?

Rick Hanson: The possibility of the end of craving. We have the truth of suffering– the truth of the cause of suffering being craving broadly defined– a drive state, attachment, drivenness, pressure of various kinds, subtle and gross. Then we have the third noble truth being the possibility that there really can be a mind in which there isn’t that kind of disturbed, deficit-based, endless scratching and clawing for the next thing. Then there’s the fourth noble truth, the path that leads to that.

Rick Archer: Yeah. And the end of craving wouldn’t just mean a passive state in which you didn’t care anymore, or something like that. It would mean a state of profound fulfillment, I would think. In the Upanishads it says, “Contact with Brahman is infinite joy.” To use the analogy of a king: He can’t sit and rest until he finds his throne. Meanwhile he tries this seat, tries that seat, and he’s always wandering because none of those seats are his, but when he finds the throne then he can sit and rest. So I guess we’re saying that ultimately someone like the Buddha hadn’t just psyched himself into a devil-may-care attitude, but he had grounded himself in the source of all creation, which by all historical and traditional definitions is a very blissful, fulfilled place to be.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The end of the path is not a numb state. It’s, as the Buddha put it, that highest happiness which is peace. The truth is, from a biological standpoint, you drop a brick on the foot of a Buddha, I assume it’s going to hurt. That’s natural. The Buddha, toward the end of his life, lost some of his dear closest students, Sariputra for example, and the Buddha grieved over that. That’s very normal. Who would want to have a heart that’s so “awakened,” that it would not be moved by the death of a child, let’s say. The point is, moment to moment, streaming through our biological nature as animals are the feeling tones of unpleasant, pleasant, and heartfelt, broadly defined– or in psychology, the hedonic tones– that have to do with those three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connections. Encountering what’s unpleasant tends to naturally activate an overarching integrative motivational system in the brain that wants to avoid harms. When we encounter that which is pleasant, we activates an overarching system in the brain that approaches rewards. When we encounter that which is heartfelt, that activates a general system in the brain that wants to attach to others. This is a way of thinking about the three traditional poisons of hatred, greed, and delusion, and adding a fourth poison, which I think is relevant: the poison of heartache that speaks to our profoundly social nature as human beings. To your point, there’s a tipping point there. When we encounter what’s unpleasant, and there’s an activation of the avoiding harm system in the brain, do we tip into craving? In the traditional word, do we tip into “tanha,” the root of which in Pali is the word “thirst”? That’s the original word for craving in early Buddhism. Or do we tip into what’s called “chanda,” wholesome desire, where naturally we want to pull our hand away from the hot stove, but we don’t get angry at the stove? Where naturally we want to protect someone we care about from harm, but we don’t need to go to war with that which is unpleasant. That’s the tipping point. There’s similar tipping points with that which is pleasant. Do we tip into greed for that which is pleasant? Grasping? Or can we hold it in a state of pleasure– the middle lane in Buddhism: We enjoy it, we engage it, we aspire toward wholesome ends, such as the wish for awakening for oneself and others, or simple things like getting a stop sign that actually works next to a school so that there’s not a lot of traffic there. Things like that. That’s the tipping point: tanha or chanda? Similarly, I think of it as the red zone or the green zone. And then when we encounter that which is heartfelt, do we tip into loneliness or envy or shame or clinging to the other person, tanha, or do we tip into chanda, where we can tolerate the experiences that we’re having while continuing to wish ourselves and others well? And I think the path of practice, particularly if you think about operationalizing the third noble truth, is to gradually change the conditioning of the mind which means sculpting structure and function so that increasingly, as we encounter inevitably in life that which is unpleasant, pleasant, or heartfelt, we increasingly naturally relate to it from the green zone– from the responsive mode of the brain– on the basis of chanda, wholesome desire, rather than on the basis of hatred, greed, and heartache.

Rick Archer: I’m sure I can’t conceptually do justice to what the Buddha was actually experiencing, but I suspect, and you would probably concur– you and I both have been long-term meditators– that he was experiencing something of the nature of– at least some characteristic of it would be sort of a profound unshakable peace, regardless of the circumstances. So if a disciple died, sure, there was grief, but that grief was more like a cloud passing in front of the sun; it didn’t obscure the brightness of the sun. Or it was like a ripple on the ocean, if we want to use that metaphor. If we agree on that, then the interesting question is, “What’s actually going on in the brain?” because ordinarily people would just experience the cloud, or the ripple on the ocean, and not the full depth of the ocean. There must be some brain state corresponding with that. But if one’s predominant experience is of self-awareness, or to use a more Hindu term– or deep abiding wakefulness or peace or whatever– there must be some kind of mechanisms in the brain that are maintaining that state, while simultaneously entertaining the various relative experiences that we go through.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, it gets really interesting to try to operationalize this, and the point I’m making, just like you’re making it as well, is that when events happen– you may know there’s this sequence in Buddhism called the chain of dependent origination and there’s an essential sequence in this chain that goes from what’s called contact, or in modern– I’m a neuropsychologist– so in modern psychological terms, “stimulus.” Then there’s the feeling tone related to that stimulus– or in Western modern terms, the hedonic tone of it– as unpleasant, pleasant, or heartfelt. And then in the Buddhist model, there’s that movement from contact to feeling tone to craving, to clinging, and then to suffering and harm. So right there, from the movement from the feeling tone– which is inevitable: We’re animals– we’re going to experience life as unpleasant, pleasant, or heartfelt in various ways. The question then becomes, “What do we do with that?” And to your point, the Buddha had in effect installed a profound shock absorber, the maha shock absorber of all shock absorbers, so that it’s operationalized as literally it’s impossible for it to arise in the mind of an awakened being– any response to what’s unpleasant, pleasant, or heartfelt, any response that is aversive to what’s unpleasant, grasping after what’s pleasant, or clinging to what’s heartfelt. You’re exactly right. So how do I actually do that?

Rick Archer: At least maybe a disproportionate aversion or grasping, because certainly the Buddha’s going to take his hand off the hot stove, and if someone offers him a delicious meal he might enjoy the meal, but it’s like, “All is well.” There’s a sort of a– These things are put into their proper perspective, not intellectually, but experientially and continuously, and they really have a rather insignificant value by comparison with the bliss of the self, the bliss of the– I keep using that– I know Buddhists don’t talk of self, but you know what I’m talking about.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, yeah. Right. There’s nothing added to it. In a famous sutta, “In the seen, let there be only the seen.” Right? “In the heard, only the heard,” and by implication, “In the unpleasant, let there be only the unpleasant; in the pleasant, only the pleasant; in the heartfelt, only the heartfelt.” To bring it down to some practical stuff, I think first of all that there must be in the brain of a Buddha tremendous regulation of the ancient systems that tip into– that are designed to go into the red zone. And I think that part of that regulation has to do with saturating those systems with the felt sense of profound safety, profound satisfaction, profound connection as a resting state of being. I liken it a little bit to the keel of a sailboat. In other words, as the keel gets deeper, it’s harder and harder to knock the boat over, even if the winds start to really blow hard. And even if they bang the boat hard, it recovers really, really quickly. So I think that’s one thing. And to me, part of that speaks to the path and the Tibetan saying, “Taking the fruit is the path.” I mean, if the aim of life, in terms of our three fundamental needs– safety, satisfaction, connection, very broadly defined– It’s not the entirety of our needs. I think we have other needs as well. But in terms of evolutionary neuropsychology, those are really fundamental needs. Well, if you have a mind that is profoundly rested already in a prior, always already innate sense of peace, contentment, and love, in terms of those three needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection, it’s really hard to knock you over. That’s one. Two, I think in the brain of a Buddha, or people pretty far along the path, is a very– What the neurologist James Austin describes as an allocentric orientation, a oneness experience. When you increasingly open out into allness, and that’s your experiencing of things in a non-dual kind of way, that also tends to deactivate our suffering, our craving-based responses to the stimuli of everyday life. In other words, a lot of what drives the ancient machinery of craving, broadly defined as a response to stimuli, is this presumption of being a localized self over here. And as that sense relaxes, as there’s a broader sense of oneness with everything, things are happening, but there’s no one to whom they’re happening. Thus there doesn’t need to be that kind of reactive response. And then I think last, one of the things that again strikes me about people that are doing meditative practice, is that their mindfulness is really acute. So even when unpleasant lands, to your analogy, it’s like a dark cloud in a vast sky. Right? What’s ongoing for them is a very broad sense of unitive consciousness, which maps well to very high levels of gamma wave brainwave activity: These very fast brainwaves that people who’ve done a tremendous amount of practice tend to integrate and create a kind of coherence in the brain altogether. These brainwaves are also firing very quickly, so there’s a lot of sense of synchronization and that very rapid gamma wave activity supports learning. When you’re in this very unitive consciousness state of mind, just as an ongoing way of being, not just on the meditation cushion, you’re more able to learn from your life experiences and steepen your learning curve as a result.

Rick Archer: Yeah, interesting. I know that the TM people have been doing research for years on brainwave correlates of meditation. I only have a layman’s understanding of it but they’ve always been talking about this global coherence that shows up between the hemispheres and between all the various parts of the brain where everything– the brainwaves– seem to be in synchrony with one another, whereas ordinarily they’re dis-synchronous. Is that what they’re also seeing in Buddhist meditation research?

Rick Hanson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. There’s just one brain. It’s like one dharma. There’s one truth, ultimately. The ultimate truth. There’s just one ultimate truth, as it were. So we all have a human brain, and you’re exactly right. I think that brainwave pattern– that brain state, if you will– maps very well to the experiential state of “kathunk,” what in Buddhism is called–

Rick Archer: That’s the ancient esoteric term, right?

Rick Hanson: Kathunk. It’s one of the five jhana factors— “ekaggata” in Pali– the sense of unification of awareness. It just all comes together. People by the way, as a detail: If you want to play around with this in your own meditative practice you can explore what it’s like to experience– you can just start with breathing if you want– the sense of breathing as a body, as a whole. In other words, what normally happens is attention tends to skitter from one thing to another, or to put it a little differently, one different thing after another tends to pop into the foreground of awareness– even if we’re focused on the breath– this side of deep, deep, deep absorption. And what a person can do is widen the spotlight of attention so it’s no longer this pinhole, as it were, on the stage where everything else is dark. You open the spotlight to include all the sensations of breathing, let’s say starting with your chest and then moving to the whole body gradually. So the sensations are all known at once in the mind as a single unified gestalt. And that I think makes logical sense as a kind of training that a person can do in home practice, not just on retreat, to gradually train the brain to be able to go increasingly into states of unification of awareness, certainly as a foundation for profound states of unification of awareness on retreat or in other situations.

Rick Archer: I want to talk a lot more with you about these practical steps that you advocate for training the brain, but let’s talk a little bit more on the theoretical before we get into that. I was reading an article by a physicist the other night, and he was saying that the eye can actually detect as few as one or two photons, the olfactory sense can detect a single molecule of a chemical stimulant, and based on this kind of finding, physicist Niels Bohr suggested that thought involves such small energies in the brain as to be necessarily governed by quantum effects. And the physicist whose article I was reading went on to speculate that perhaps there’s some kind of room temperature macroscopic superconductivity that takes place in the brain which would enable it to serve as a kind of a conscious experiential interface between the absolute and the relative. In other words, we’re not just talking about some inner calmness and peace and whatnot that might be attributable to endocrine system secretions or something. We’re talking about the actual connection with or experience of the ground state of the universe, the ultimate reality of the universe. It’s fascinating to consider that the human nervous system has the capacity apparently to make that conscious realization and what the mechanics of that might be, whether there is some sort of macroscopic superconductivity taking place.

Rick Hanson: That stuff is very interesting. So two parts about that. The first part is that we’re now edging outside the natural frame, and I just want to mark that transition as it were, the naturalist frame. And the second thing I would say is that this idea that we must take into account quantum effects deep in the underlying physical processes of the nervous system for a full understanding of our experience and even consciousness– It’s kind of controversial and my take about it is that there’s probably some really interesting stuff there and we’re in early days about this. Neuroscience is a baby science compared to other sciences. And I think there is a transcendental and there must probably be some mechanisms of interaction. That said, I’m perfectly comfortable with people who remain agnostic, if not atheistic, about the possibility of the transcendental because there’s tremendous opportunity for practice inside the natural frame. Most of us, in our practice, are not engaging that intersection in any real sense between the natural and the transcendental, if you will. And I’m not saying that to argue against that. I’m just saying when I think about what arises in my mind when it’s late at night and I’m picking our daughter up at the airport and her flight’s a little delayed and we’re just waiting and waiting and waiting– Or as we go through life, when we face old age, disease, and death– There’s so many opportunities inside the natural frame for powerful practice. And I think that even there, it’s like the Wild West. There’s so much we don’t know. And it’s also full of exciting opportunities for people doing do-it-yourself neurodharma because we can take into account just a few basics about the brain, including the sheer fact that our practice is gradually changing it for the better. We can take that into account in our everyday practice in ways that I think are really, really fruitful for ourselves and other people. I mean, the Buddha himself counseled against engaging the thicket of views, as he put it. And I think sometimes people can get– this is a personal opinion, it’s not an official opinion– but I think sometimes people can get caught up in the woo-woo stuff because it’s neat and fascinating and groovy. And it can become what John Welwood called a “spiritual bypass,” a way to not do the work down here on planet Earth in how we actually deal with others in our everyday life.

Rick Archer: Oh, yes. Well, I think that’s very important, of course. But I think one man’s woo is another man’s…

Rick Hanson: Awakening.

Rick Archer: Yeah, or his ho-hum regular everyday reality. And just because something is outside the realm of one person’s experience doesn’t mean that it’s not– that it’s outside the realm of another’s. But what you say about the practical stuff, the natural stuff– and Buddhism has great teachings on this about right behavior and treating others as you would want to be treated and so on. I think that even if the transcendental dimension didn’t exist or couldn’t be experienced, the natural stuff is all extremely valuable in and of itself. And in most traditions, that stuff is considered to be essential, essentially conducive to the development of enlightenment or higher states of consciousness and so on. In other words, if you’re running around acting like a schmuck and then spending an hour a day in meditation, you’re– it’s counterproductive. You’re not really culturing the nervous system or the brain in a way that’s going to get you anywhere very significant.

Rick Hanson: Oh, totally true. And to be clear– full disclosure here– my own practice is very much about trying to open to the transcendental. Or to put it a little differently, to unconditionality, always eternally, just prior to the congealing into actuality at the emerging edge of now. So that’s quite my practice, and I find that that’s quite informed. I think about what’s going on under the hood, inside my own hood, as it were, my own black box, that I can work with to gradually become increasingly accessible to the felt sense of unconditionality as a kind of resting state as one continually participates in the realm of conditionality. I want to be clear: I’m engaging that intersection between the natural and the transcendental myself. I think it’s just important to be careful about reifying the transcendental because, as they say, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know,” Lao Tzu’s famous saying. So anyway, that’s a passing thought. Do you want to go practical here? Do you want to get more into neurodharma, as it were?

Rick Archer: Yeah, let’s do that. Just one closing thought on what you just said. Maybe this will be a segue because you talk about ingraining pleasant, positive experiences and turning these states into traits. Traditionally it’s understood that the transcendental, as you call it, is a very blissful state– or at least contact with it is. So if that is the case, and if we do have a natural tendency to move in the direction of greater happiness if it’s offered to us, then it should be possible to access that transcendental state and to encounter greater and greater joy as we approach and enter into it. It shouldn’t be necessarily a difficult or inaccessible thing, I would say.


Rick Hanson: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think that, to use the analogy of the Wild West, it only takes one explorer to cross a hill and come back with a bag of gold to say this is actually possible for other people. We need to do the work ourselves, but it’s actually possible. And clearly, I think it’s unquestionable, even from a purely atheistic– entirely inside the natural frame perspective– that there are thousands and thousands of people in the world today, and certainly millions historically, who clearly report, as you describe it, profound bliss states. Just being around them is blissful for other people. Something is happening there. Right? It reminds me of the Bob Dylan line– so I’ll mangle it, I’m sure, but “Something’s happening here, Mr. Jones, that you don’t understand,” something like that.

Rick Archer: “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Rick Hanson: That’s exactly right. So never bet against the human spirit or mind, or never bet against God, broadly defined.

Rick Archer: There have been many such explorers lately. It seems like it’s getting more and more common, and it seems like it’s possible to traverse that territory without getting shot by Indians or dying of starvation or something along the way. In other words, from my observation, it’s getting easier and easier for people– I’ve talked to people who haven’t even done any practice, and they’re just walking down the street, and all of a sudden “boom” –this profound awakening, which they never again lose.

Rick Hanson: I know that’s really quite remarkable. It’s as if something has shifted fundamentally– minimally, the effects of the transcendental are manifest in the conditioned natural frame, or– staying purely inside the natural frame– there’s some fundamental shift that’s happened there that’s stable for that person. In effect, their brain learned from awakening, and learned how to stay awakened. Right?

Rick Archer: Look at Eckhart Tolle, I’m sure his story.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, yeah.

Rick Archer: On the verge of suicide, he asks himself– he says, “I can’t live with myself anymore,” and then he says, “Wait a minute– are there two of me?” And then he goes to sleep, and in the morning he wakes up awakened.

Rick Hanson: There you have it.

Rick Archer: Of course, it took him years to integrate it.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, the waking down part that Saniel Bonder talks about. Yeah.

Rick Archer: Good, let’s shift into the next area you wanted to talk about and we may loop back to some of this stuff from time to time as we go.

Rick Hanson: Oh, sure, whatever– wherever you want to go, I’ll take it. Maybe just a way to transition it here is that obviously there are many forms of practice. There are many aspects. As you put it earlier, there’s the dimension of morality: virtue, restraint, wholesome conduct. Right? There’s the dimension of concentration: mental training, starting to open to non-ordinary states of awareness that are the basis for profoundly liberating insight, transformational changes in people. And then also wisdom, the takeaway from that. People probably recognize that in Buddhism those are the three classic pillars of practice: sila, samadhi, and prajna– virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom, broadly defined. Okay, so that’s really true. In all that, there’s a part that has recently gotten me very interested. I call it neurobhavana. “Bhavana” is a word– “cultivation” –in Pali and Sanskrit. Bhavana, cultivation. How do we actually cultivate? How do you actually help a brain learn? Because if you think about it, the wholesome traits or factors, again, the Buddhist model is very– is processes and causes. It’s a very dynamic model, all right? So how do we get the causes going inside the mind– which means inside the brain– that will promote our own well-being and welfare, as well as the welfare and well-being of other people? How do you actually do that? And then that goes to the ways in which the brain learns, which is this two-stage process of activation to installation to reactivation to reinstallation. In other words, you’ve got to get a wholesome state of mind going in the first place. And then the critically important point, Rick, that has really been very humbling to me personally, is to appreciate that if you don’t install that momentarily wholesome state of mind– that experience of compassion, that sense of steadiness of mind, that release from self-criticism, what it’s like to actually be aware of the whole chest while you breathe, not just focusing on one little sensation after another– If you don’t actually install that wholesome state of mind, it’s momentarily pleasant, but it has no lasting value. There’s no learning as a result. There’s no internalization in some shift in neural structure and function. And I think we’re very good, generally speaking, relatively speaking, we’re very good at activating useful positive states of mind, but we’re not very good at actually helping them sink into the brain. That’s why I think the learning curve for most people in practice is fairly shallow, punctuated by long periods that often can feel stagnant. What has gotten me very interested here is how to take those useful states of mind that we activate, both in formal practice and usually in everyday life– How do you help them really land in the body? How do you take the body into account? Because the body learns, the body and the brain– Headquartered by the brain, the animal body learns more slowly than the flow of conscious experience. We need to slow it down to help the body– that little inner lizard, inner mouse, and inner monkey– take in the useful lessons of life. Now that slowing down is only a dozen or two dozen seconds or so at a time. Also it’s an enjoyable practice because most wholesome factors of mind– tranquility, conviction, mindfulness, absorption, bliss, to name some of the factors of awakening and spiritual strength in Buddhism– they feel good. It’s an enjoyable practice to take in the good. So if you just slow it down and do that practice, you can really steepen your learning curve. The art of it, which goes to something you brought up earlier, is for me that razor’s edge where we are simultaneously profoundly receptive to that which is wholesome– to let it really last and land– while at the same time continually letting go of it. Because otherwise, given that we’ve got a brain that evolved to want what it likes, there’s the tendency of fueling clinging rather than defueling clinging. But if people can drop down into that experience– we all know what it is– to really let something sink in while simultaneously being unattached to it, you can really accelerate your growth down the path of awakening.

Rick Archer: And I notice you’re using the word wholesome as opposed to just pleasurable because for some people sex, drugs, and rock and roll might be what lights their fire. But what you’re talking about is something which could perhaps have a more salutary effect on the physiology if we could install it more permanently.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, exactly right. Like a little example recently– And to be clear, one can apply these methods to certainly the upper reaches of human potential, which has been our focus here. And, as a long-time psychotherapist and a guy who’s been married and lived a long time, I know that you can really apply these methods to everyday upsets or even healing from past wounds that create a lot of suffering in general and also impede your own spiritual practice. All that said, I’m thinking that probably what would be useful is a little example here. Recently I read…

Rick Archer: Yeah, specific things.

Rick Hanson: Yeah. So in my own practice, I read this little thing recently by Andy Olendzki in “Tricycle Magazine.” Bows to Andy and “Tricycle.” Andy’s the resident scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies– really a great teacher, always worth reading. And Andy just said this little phrase about “the mind of no grasping.” Just that little phrase: The mind of no grasping. And in that moment I got a very felt sense of what it’s actually like to have a mind in which in that moment there’s no sense of leaning into the next moment to make something come into being, to push it or produce it. And in the mind of no grasping there’s not merely the absence of grasping, there’s a really powerful sense of peace. Okay, so it’s not full awakening for me, but it was what in psychology is called the zone of proximal development. That’s a phrase from the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. It’s within range. And this is where the opportunity is for us. For that which is already consolidated, there’s no added value if we keep working at. And for that which is out of reach, we can’t get it, so why push for it? But that which is in reach– which for me was this unstable but real sense of the mind of no grasping– that’s where I can encourage consolidation, learning, internalization, installation. Increasingly, I have that really with me. So I tried to help myself: Stay with that felt sense, not just move on to the next paragraphs in the article, but to appreciate this was a moment that was valuable for me and to let it sink in. And then repeatedly I’ve come back to that felt sense of the mind of no grasping, slowed it down, and tried to do– In this process that summarizes the neuropsychology of learning, I summarize it in the acronym HEAL, H-E-A-L: Have, Enrich, Absorb, and if you like, optional step, Link positive to negative together. In this particular case, I’m really trying to absorb what it’s like to have a mind of no grasping and let it land, give myself over to it so it really lasts inside me. In other words, I’m trying to not just think, “There it was!” I had that activated moment, that mental state of the mind of no grasping, and instead of wasting it, as I would often have done in the past, I tried to help it sink in so that I would really learn from it as a result. Now, this is not original. We all know about this. Right? We all have some felt sense of this. The question is, “How often do we actually do it?” How often do we actually practice with useful states of mind– to take the extra 10, 20, 30 seconds, multiple times in a day– to really help them land? And that would be an example for me of doing this practice.

Rick Archer: Okay, let’s take another common example which everyone has had. Let’s say you’re taking a hike and the sun is setting and it’s really beautiful and you sit there and you watch the sunset or something. Maybe you’re on a beach watching the sunset. Everyone’s had that kind of experience. And most people at a certain point are going to say, “Okay, let’s get up and go home and have dinner.” How would you do it differently so as to instill something more permanent from that wholesome experience?

Rick Hanson: Yeah. Neurons that fire together wire together. Deep down in the bowels of the brain, it’s a pretty mechanical process. Way up here, we can be composing Beethoven’s Ninth or having deep awakenings or something, but way down here, it’s pretty basic. So “mo’ bettah” (i.e., the more the better). If you really want to summarize neurobhavana, more is better. In other words, [the goal is] more episodes in which you’re trying to internalize something wholesome and more depth of engagement in each one of those episodes. That said, if a person on the beach is– as a kind of mini-concentration practice– is absorbed in the felt sense of the beauty of the sunset, maybe some related feelings of gratitude, if they’re just hanging out in that, they’re getting those neurons firing together, so they’re going to tend to wire together as well. What more commonly happens, though, is that the person’s at the beach– I can speak from some personal experience here– “Oh, nice sunset. That’s cool.” And then the mind will skitter to the next thing, “Oh, those are waves. Ah.” The mind will skitter to the next thing, the call of the seagull, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Passing thought, “Oh, I’ve gotta send out an email when I get home. Hmm, I wonder what’s for dinner.”

Rick Archer: “Oh, nice.” Some Beatles song going through your head and half a dozen other things–

Rick Hanson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It could be one pleasant experience after another, each one lasting two or three or four seconds. Most coalitions of synapses in the brain that are the basis for a particular conscious mental state– I think of those coalitions of synapses as like eddies in a stream. They come together within a few tenths of a second. They usually stabilize for another few seconds at most, and then they tend to decay into something else. Most specific experiences don’t actually last very long. You can observe that in your own practice. So if that person sitting there at the beach is having one pleasant experience after another, one positive wholesome experience such as gratitude and so forth, inner peace, but each one of those experiences is only two to three seconds long, that’s generally not long enough to transfer from short-term memory buffers down into long-term storage. It’s a momentarily pleasant activated mental state but it hasn’t been encoded into any kind of lasting neural trait. That’s what typically happens. Meanwhile, any kind of negative state, suddenly a worry about, “Oh, I forgot to get the milk. Oh, my partner’s going to be really mad at me. Oh, I never remember what he/she wants, blah, blah–” suddenly we’re hijacked by that negative state, which is getting encoded very quickly in neural structure. So the alternative at the beach there is if you’re having that experience of gratitude and ease, really give it to yourself. Let yourself have it. Express that loving kindness for yourself among all beings, the one you have the most influence over. And really let that experience sink in for a dozen or two dozen seconds in a row, if not longer. It’s like a mini-concentration practice, a mini-absorption practice, one or two or three dozen seconds in a row. That’s what’s going to really promote the encoding of that positive experience into neural structure.

Rick Archer: Let me try to put it in my own words and see if I’ve understood you correctly. Let’s say you’re sitting on the beach and you’re watching the sun set. There can be an entirely object-oriented experience where you’re looking at the sun and you’re thinking, “Oh, maybe it’s 95 million miles away,” and “I wonder if that boat that’s going along– Is the sun is going to set right on it or not.” You’re just engaging in the outer experience without much tuning in to what’s happening inside you. But another possibility– which maybe this is what you’re getting at– is that you tune into or appreciate or dwell on to some extent the feelings of awe or wonder or well-being or beauty or whatever that the external experience triggers in you. And by dwelling on those internal experiences more, rather than exclusively the external experience, you instill them and thereby sculpt the brain. Is that the kind of thing you’re saying?

Rick Hanson: Yeah, exactly right. Just using that HEAL acronym, H-E-A-L, you activate a mental state. You have it. Right? Either because you just notice it– there you are at the beach, it’s beautiful and wonderful– or you deliberately create it, like doing a deliberate compassion practice, or deliberately thinking of something you’re grateful for just before sleep. Okay. Now you’ve got it activated, and then you need to enrich it and absorb it to really install it. And enriching, for me, involves five well-known factors in the neuropsychology of learning. You’ve already named one of them. So one factor is duration: More is better. The longer you stay with that experience held in short-term memory buffers, the more it’ll sink into neural structure. Second: intensity. The more intensely you feel it– even if the experience is subtle like tranquility or gratitude– if you give yourself over to it and it’s the only thing that pervades your mind, it’s functionally intense. All right? Third factor is the one you named: multimodality. The more senses that are involved, the more that you bring it into your body, the more that you tune into the emotional aspects of it, the more you track, a kind of– even an enactment, what’s called “embodied cognition.” You sit up a little straighter to be determined. If you hold out your hands like this (prayer hands, “anjali mudra”) as an expression of gratitude, That’s going to intensify the experience. Whatever’s appropriate. And then fourth factor of enriching that’s well-known– Again, what builds neural structure? What cultivates that which is wholesome that you want to take with you? Fourth factor being novelty. The brain is a big novelty detector. The more that you can see that which is fresh, seeing the world through the eyes of the child– beginner’s mind, Zen mind– the more structure you’ll build. And then the last factor of enriching is personal relevance. Why would it be salient to me– broadly defined, not presuming an ego, but to me altogether, this person over here sitting on the beach? Why would it be helpful to me to really let it land, this fundamental sense that everything’s all right? Maybe I’m a bit worried about stuff lately or taking way too many things personally, getting my knickers in a twist. Here’s this ocean. The ocean’s abiding. It’s been here long before me, it’s going to continue long after me. Why would it be helpful for me to really let this experience sink in? Ah, we remember what’s salient, what’s personally relevant to us. That’s the enriching phase, and that’s exactly right. And it sounds complicated, but really boils down to more is better or “Have it, enjoy it.” Once you’ve got that positive state going, recognize it at least a handful of times every day. “Ha ha! This one’s a keeper.” Not because I’m clinging to it or getting attached to it but because I understand that the gradual growing of these useful, wholesome factors of everyday well-being– and certainly healing, as well as the upper reaches of human potential– I’m recognizing that the cultivation of these factors inside me is good for me, and also good for the people I live with and work with, and even the whole wide world.

Rick Archer: Sounds like in a nutshell what you’re advocating is to be a bit more introspective, a bit more self-referral, to actually consciously tune into the good feelings and senses of well-being that certain outer experiences evoke, and by dwelling on them longer than we ordinarily would if we’re just outer-directed in our attention, to instill them and to stabilize them.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, I think there’s part of what you said that I would say, “Yeah, that is what I’m saying,” but there’s another part that I would say, “Mm, not so much.”

Rick Archer: Okay

Rick Hanson: What I mean by that is that if we really recognize that the path of awakening is a fundamental process of developing inner strengths, very broadly defined– Virtues, virtue, concentration, mindfulness, and wisdom, those are inner strengths. The capacity to investigate or experience tranquility, loving kindness, compassion, the Brahma-Viharas, equanimity, some sense of ongoing contact with unconditionality, knowing also how to navigate tricky conversations with partners, how to practice wise speech when the chips are down, how to do the right thing when it’s hard to do the right thing. Anyway, these are inner strengths. If we recognize that our own path of healing, let alone awakening, involves the cultivation of inner strengths, that immediately takes us to the how of it. How do you actually do that for real, given two things? One: the brain’s evolved negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for the bad, but Teflon for the good. The brain is very efficient at turning negative mental states into negative neural traits.

Rick Archer: Tell the little carrot and stick metaphor, because that’s quite helpful in understanding that.

Rick Hanson: Yeah. On that point, as our ancestors evolved, they needed to get carrots, like rewards– maybe food, mating opportunities, and so forth. They also needed to avoid sticks, like predators, natural hazards, aggression inside their band or between bands. All right. Carrots and sticks are both important, but the difference is that if you fail to get a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at one tomorrow, probably. But if you fail to avoid that stick today– in lethal environments, as our ancestors evolved for the 600 million years of evolution of the nervous system– If you fail to avoid that stick today: Kaboom! No more carrots forever. So we’ve got a brain that’s very good at learning from the bad: Once burned, twice shy. I think it’s important to be humble enough to take the body into account. It’s really interesting that a lot of practices that are about awareness of the body actually don’t really pursue the full implications of embodied living. Because embodied living means a body that overlearns from the bad and is poor at learning from the good, even though good experiences are the primary source of the inner strengths that we’re trying to cultivate down the path of awakening. For me, this is a very fundamental practice that faces the Stone Age negativity bias of the brain and also recognizes that the way to grow, the how of personal growth, is this fundamental matter of installing useful activated states of mind. And then last, if we have any real interest in undoing the powerful basis for craving inside us– this response to unpleasant with aversion, response to pleasant with greed, response to heartfelt with clinging– if we’re really serious about undoing that kind of craving, we need to repeatedly internalize– I think of it as 10,000 times, 10 seconds at a time– repeatedly internalize the felt sense of “core needs met” so there’s no basis for craving. There’s no deficit or disturbance, which is the basis for craving. And for me, this is a very fundamental matter of practice, this progressive process of internalizing wholesome experiences to gradually defuel the fires of craving and harm.

Rick Archer: Do you find that people who practice what you’re saying for quite some time, or people who have a dedicated meditation practice for instance, evolve out of this Teflon, Velcro, carrot- stick situation into a more evolved style of functioning spontaneously? In other words, they become a, what’s the term, a bellwether? An advanced guard for what civilization might be instead of the caveman way of functioning that people seem to have retained.

Rick Hanson: Yeah. I would say first that the negativity bias of the brain makes us very prone to becoming increasingly sensitized to negative experiences. There are feedback loops for example that involve cortisol that gradually make the alarm bell of the brain, the amygdala, ever more sensitive as a reaction to chronic stress, including the stress of being irritated routinely or frustrated or anxious. That’s stressful and that activates the ancient stress machinery of the body.

Rick Archer: And I guess some people still need that. I mean, if you’re a soldier in Afghanistan, you’re in a caveman society situation and you need to be on your toes or there’s no more tomorrow.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, that’s right. Or being a kid growing up in a really scary environment.

Rick Archer: Neighborhood.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, at our home, neighborhood, whatever. Yeah, we’re tough critters. On the other hand, when we’re in regular normal life, far from perfect, but we’re not being attacked routinely by saber-toothed tigers or people trying to blow up our bus, then this negativity bias is actually not good for us. It doesn’t support well-being. It leads us to hurt other people and overreact to them. And then we constitute a threat for them. They go negative about us. We get caught up in this vicious negative cycle with other people. You can see that writ small and large at the individual level or at the international level. On the other hand, you’re exactly right, Rick. There is emerging evidence that through repeatedly registering positive experiences– just in informal ways or in the practices that I’m really trying to systematize and apply to different situations– people can, if they do these practices, gradually sensitize their brains to the positive so that the brain becomes increasingly efficient at turning everyday positive experiences– most of which are mild– They’re not that million-dollar moment on the beach. They’re just this kind of ordinary sense of eating oatmeal and, “Raisins taste good” and, “I like nutmeg,” and, “It’s a nice little moment here.” Right?

Rick Archer: You just described my breakfast from today.

Rick Hanson: There you are. What an opportunity. Anyway, if people repeatedly internalize those– if they repeatedly take in the good– they can actually gradually sensitize their brain to the positive so they learn more and more quickly and that’s a higher order benefit from this practice of neurobhavana I’m describing in which we’re actually helping our brain become a better and better learner from those positive states that are the basis of the positive traits we want to cultivate in ourselves.

Rick Archer: I’m sure you’re aware there are some really neat programs– For instance, there’s that documentary, “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana,” where they’re teaching Vipassana in a prison. I think it’s in India or someplace and there’s a lot of programs like that these days, working with prisoners and PTSD sufferers. The David Lynch Foundation does TM instruction in inner city schools and works with folks with PTSD. And they’re actually measuring some of this stuff and seeing changes that take place in the brain in these prisoners as a result of their practice. So this PTSD doesn’t necessarily have to be a lifelong sentence. It can apparently be reversed with some of these sorts of things.

Rick Hanson: I know. I think it’s really exciting. Speaking of Wild West, whatever– put a little differently– I think neuroscience and, if you will, “neurodharma,” is roughly where biology was a couple hundred years after the invention of the microscope, which is to say about 1825. And, to be clear, whether it’s Ramana Maharshi in the 20th century or the Buddha 2,500 years ago or other people who are less well-known but are clearly very far along the path, maybe even all the way toward complete awakening, those people did not need to know a darn thing about the brain to engage virtue, concentration, mindfulness, and wisdom for their own awakening. On the other hand, I think there are opportunities, especially for busy householders who don’t have access to 30 years of 24/7 slow grinding and polishing of monastic life– I think there are ways in which learning something about the brain can actually enrich practice through aiding insight, supporting disenchantment– When you start to appreciate that your own precious viewpoints– I’m speaking of myself here– are just the momentary production of some arbitrary coalition of synapses that will decay within seconds, it’s hard to take yourself so seriously. Also I think by understanding better how the brain learns, taking into account its ancient tendencies toward negative learning, we can actually accelerate our own path of awakening as we go through life. We can also adapt practice. There’s a natural variation in temperament. If you think about attention, you have at one end anxious, rigid turtles, and at the other end you’ve got spirited, ADHD-ish jackrabbits. Most contemplative practices have been devised by turtles for turtles in turtle pens to make them better turtles. If you’re a jackrabbit by temperament, or you live in a culture that’s very jackrabbit-y like today where we’re bombarded with stimuli and we get habituated to it– I think neuroscience can suggest skillful means, ways of adapting and individualizing practice so that it’s better suited to a person in order to accelerate their learning curve as they go down the path of awakening.

Rick Archer: Do you tend to avoid things which might be considered unwholesome? For instance, have you deprived yourself of watching “Breaking Bad?” Should we throw away Shakespeare’s tragedies and just keep his comedies because the tragedies are kind of a bummer? I mean, how do you deal with popular culture and all the things it offers, many of which are designed to make us sad or make us excited or challenge us in various ways like that?

Rick Hanson: That’s a great question. And to be clear, life is full of negative experiences. There will be unpleasant experiences, right? The question is, “How do we respond to them?” Do we go red or green, as it were? Reactive or responsive, tanha or chanda, in our response to them, and how we relate to them? That’s really the question. I want to be informed. Also I’m a householder. I’m not– I think of myself as a kind of intermediate practitioner: I’m not yet prepared to go into full renunciation. So I have watched Breaking Bad. I thought it was pretty amazing. I had a guru for a while [who] had a saying, “Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert.” In other words, there’s a place for experiencing life and enjoying life. The question is, “Are we getting hooked about it?” That said, you’re right, Rick. I have gotten more of a sense of being a friend to my own brain, to put it a certain kind of way, or another way of putting it, that little inner lizard, mouse, and monkey inside us all– more of a nourishing caretaker in that, when you really start to appreciate how quick the brain is at learning from the bad, you get a lot more thoughtful about what you run through your mindstream. And I think it’s one thing to watch a show like “Breaking Bad” that you know is entertainment. Right? But on the other hand, to routinely indulge watching horror films, let’s say, or other kinds of things that tend to really get into your head– I don’t think that’s very good for you. And then more generally think about our interactions with other people. They say something that irritates us– What do we do then? There’s a place for being with the negative experience, holding it in spacious awareness. Obviously. Okay. But if we get caught up in that negative rumination loop of feeling wronged and going over and over and over the situation, mounting our counterattack, running dialogues in our mind, “What I should have said?” “What I will say?” –feeling let down by others who didn’t come through for us with regard to this third party who wronged us, whatever– You know, Tsoknyi Rinpoche says, “Think the same thought again and again, fine. But 10 is enough, all right?” In other words, at some point, we want to pull out of that negative loop because neurons that fire together wire together, including those little negative murmurings in the back of the mind. So I have gotten a lot quicker at moving through what I think are the three ways to engage the mind:  Just be with it or reduce the negative or grow the positive. And I have gotten quicker in my own practice at moving through that transition from just being with it to shifting into releasing it, not out of aversion but out of skillful means because I recognize that just, “Wunh, wunh, wunh, wunh, wunh,” is not good for me and it’s not good for other people. There’s a famous saying in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous: Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for others to die. There we are, we’re harming ourselves by indulging these negative mind states.

Rick Archer: Yeah. And terms of movies and stuff, I can’t see a distinction, at least in my own choosing, between things which are entertaining and maybe even a little exciting, but which you naturally see as a story and you don’t get totally overshadowed by, and then things which are specifically designed to scare the crap out of you or, to disgust you or things like that which may… some people seem to get off on having deep impressions made by things– being shocked, you know?

Rick Hanson: Yeah, I think it’s a way, in a weird way, for them to feel alive and real, to have that ancient– like disgust is an ancient, ancient emotion. Arguably the neurological basis for disgust is shared with really, really ancient animals. Or fear. Fear was probably the most primal emotion of all and the neural substrates that can produce a fear reaction or a rage reaction are shared with ancient lizard, turtle ancestors. So we want to be really careful about that and also careful about engendering that in other people. You could think about how much of our politics these days is driven by fear or disgust, on the one hand– presumption of being threatened– life is always threat level orange, et cetera– or contamination, which is the basis for disgust– contamination by the other who’s not my tribe. And those are very powerful forces and I think, “Do not underestimate the power of the dark side of the force.” We need to be careful about those forces particularly given the stone age brain that we’ve got which is also, of course, capable of profound beautiful acts of compassion and altruism and extending the circle of us to include all of them. So, I’m actually really hopeful for the 21st century in many, many ways. I’m clear-eyed, I think, about the fact that the planet is heating up and, there’s growing inequality of resources and it’s sort of the developed world. On the other hand, I’m pretty hopeful that there will be a very bumpy but relatively soft landing over the next 100 or 1,000 years and that people will gradually start using what is being learned about the brain to help us have a tipping point in the world in which we get some critical mass– My number is a billion, maybe it’s two billion– We get a billion brains on green. We get a billion brains not fully awakened necessarily– although that would be great but I’m a realist, right? But at least a billion brains that are rested most minutes of most days in a broad sense of underlying peace, contentment, and love. They’re in the green zone, in the responsive mode of the brain rather than tipped into its reactive mode. And I think if we get a critical mass of human beings, human brains, some number– whatever that number is, a billion, let’s say, or so– rested in mainly, if not entirely, the green zone every day, we will change the course of human history for the better. And I’m pretty hopeful about that happening. It may not happen in my lifetime but I think the possibility is very real for us because we finally do actually have the material conditions as a human species to truly meet our three fundamental needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection for every human being on the planet. And that wasn’t possible until roughly the last generation or two. There literally were not the material conditions. There wasn’t the pain control. There wasn’t the sanitation. There wasn’t the possibility for a widespread universal rule of law. But we are now starting to have that possibility and the human brain is trying to figure out what to do with it. We actually could have a planet– It wouldn’t be utopian. People will compete with each other in business, athletics, whatnot– Five people will pursue the same man or woman and only one will get the prize– Okay, life will still happen. But we could engage it fundamentally rested in the green zone without that resisting or grasping or clinging, without that craving that’s a fundamental basis for suffering and harm.

Rick Archer: I like what you say about the tipping point. That’s obviously a term that’s used a lot in the climate change world and it’s considered to be a point beyond which climate change will be irreversible because it will just be runaway heating and you won’t be able to– all the methane will be melting– and we won’t be able to reverse it. But I strongly sense and have felt for a long time that something similar may happen in the spiritual world and that that will actually be the antidote to what’s happening in the material world. And there are some models in nature which might suggest that it need not necessarily be a billion, which would be about 20% or so of the population. I’m told that in the heart about 1% of the cells are pacemaker cells and they regulate the whole heart. And in a laser even the square root of 1% of the photons starting to fire coherently together causes the rest of the photons to entrain and the entire thing becomes like one big photon. So it could be much smaller percentages of society if the realization is profound enough to be sufficient to produce the so-called hundredth monkey effect. And we could see quite a rapid– really, the falling of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union– sort of unexpected radical sudden change could occur for the better.

Rick Hanson: Yeah, I’m hopeful about that and I really appreciate what you just said. For me it comes again and again– I try to really bring it down to earth– what’s it like to engage threats in life on the basis of an underlying deeply felt sense of unconditional inner strength and peace rather than fear or anger. That’s the distinction right there. That’s the tipping point between the green zone and the red zone. Or what is it like for people to engage rewards, opportunities, or disappointments and losses on the basis of a deeply felt underlying sense of contentment and fulfillment and fullness rather than tipping into frustration and drivenness and greed about it? Again, right there. And you can see the same thing in terms of our social needs. I think that if we have people who are really rested in a deeply internalized unconditional– not based on external conditions or circumstances– an unconditioned sense– broadly defined peace, contentment, and love– Those people are very hard to manipulate at the individual level or at the cultural social level. In other words, they’re very hard to manipulate in the consumerist drivenness and greed, which is what’s driving global warming. And they’re very hard to manipulate in terms of the ancient drums of war. In other words, it’s very hard to manipulate them with fear of the other who is contaminating you and must be destroyed. Right? So even without spiritual awakening– just a deeply internalized felt sense of ongoing peace, contentment, and love– I think that would really support the tipping point we’re talking about.

Rick Archer: Nelson Mandela is a great example. He just died and we’ve all heard how he spent 28 years in prison and so on and was rather severely mistreated and somehow came out of that experience– which we wouldn’t wish upon anyone– as a very compassionate, forgiving man. He set a great example for everybody.

Rick Hanson: Well, maybe wrapping up here, if we could– I think a lot about this saying from Tibet that, “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.” And that’s what’s within range, that zone of proximal development again. What’s the most important minute of your life? It’s the next one, minute after minute after minute, because that’s the minute you can do something about. You can’t do anything about the minutes in the past. More than a few minutes in the future, you start losing influence. But the next minute– that’s the minute you can do something about. And for me one aspect of practice, but a very important aspect of practice, is to ask yourself, “Am I harvesting what is authentically available to me in the most important minute of my life, the next one? And am I actually letting it sink in?” if there is something good that can sink in. In many minutes there may not be. I think it’s completely false to try to take in the good if you’re in the middle of a really tough situation or you’re super upset or you’re just shocked by some kind of devastating loss. But most minutes for most people for most days do have some good things in them or could have some good things in them if they just widen the field of their attention and notice the good facts around them. As the Dalai Lama puts it, “If you can be happy that other people are happy, you will always be happy because there’s always somebody somewhere who’s happy.” Right? So the question then becomes, “What do we do with what’s there in the most important minute of our life?” Do we waste it? Do we fail to see it in the first place? If we see it, do we fail to have an experience of it? Or even if we see it and have an experience of it, do we fail to let it sink in? Does it just wash through the brain like water sheeting over a driveway? Or, on the other hand, do we actually let it sink in out of kindness to ourselves and ultimately kindness to other people? To me, that’s really the opportunity. That’s an important opportunity and it’s easy to underestimate the power of that deceptively simple practice, but bit by bit, synapse by synapse, you can gradually change your brain for the better. And I think of the Buddha’s saying a long time ago– he says, “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.”

Rick Archer: Great. Well there’s always things I could say, but I think it would be nice to end it with that beautiful quote. So let me just make a couple of concluding remarks. First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to do this and for helping work through the technical hurdles we had to work through to make this happen. I think that, as you said, neurophysiology is probably in its infancy and it will be interesting to see what happens, if we live long enough, over the coming decades in terms of what’s really understood about the physiological correlates of enlightenment and higher states of consciousness. For instance, Joseph Goldstein, when I interviewed him, said that Mahayana Buddhism outlines four major stages of awakening. We didn’t even have a chance to discuss those, but just as we have distinct physiological correlates for waking, dreaming, and sleeping, there are probably distinct physiological correlates for these higher states. And it will be interesting to see, as the understanding of those gets more detailed and standardized– Maybe we’ll have that interview in ten years from now.

Rick Hanson: Or a hundred.

Rick Archer: Or a hundred. Well, in our next lifetime. But in any case, it’s a fascinating field and I appreciate the contribution you’re making to it. I always appreciate it when people offer something concrete and practical that people can actually do to achieve some result, rather than just talking nice philosophical points. You’ve certainly done that in your books. So I’ll be linking to your books from your page on batgap.com. Those who are listening to this while driving or something, if you go to batgap.com, there will be a page for Rick Hanson and I’ll link to the books he’s written and there will be a short bio of him and a link to his website, of course, so you can explore in greater detail what he’s offering. There’s also a discussion group that crops up around each interview. Each interview has its own dedicated discussion page there. It’s just called Forum, although someone said we should maybe change it to the Bat Chat. I don’t know. Sometimes it gets very lively and sometimes it gets very off topic, but hopefully it’ll be useful for people and they’ll stay on topic. There’s a donate button on the site, which I appreciate people clicking if they can. There’s a link to sign up to be notified by email each time a new interview is posted. And there’s a link to the audio podcast in case you like to listen while commuting or jogging or whatever. You can sign up for the iTunes podcast of this. So thanks for listening and watching. Thank you again, Rick. And we’ll see you all next week.

Rick Hanson: Thank you.