Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Interview with Dr. Rick Hanson

I’m here with Dr. Rick Hanson, author, educator and lecturer on Buddhism and a neuropsychologist with a specialty in neuroplasticity and the positive ways we can change our brains and our minds through thought and meditation. He is the author of several books. His most recent, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, became a New York Times bestseller. He has also written dozens of scientific papers ranging from neuropsychology to Buddhist wisdom. He lectures all over the world and runs a weekly meditation class in Northern California based in the Buddhist tradition. He is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley. He also created a new exciting yearlong online program called “The Foundations of Well-Being" which is where I first became extremely impressed with his work and his perspective.

You can learn more about Dr. Hanson at his website: Rickhanson.net.

Elisabeth: First, I wanted to ask you about your approach to meditation teaching.

Dr. Rick Hanson  I guess my approach is pragmatic.   In other words, I’m interested in meditation as a means to an end. So what’s going to be the most skillful means to the end that a person cares about. People care about different things, and they will also frankly have different situations, different time frames and different temperaments. I try to offer a variety of skillful methods that are informed in some ways by Buddhist wisdom but they are also really informed by an understanding of our underlying neuropsychology.

And, with all that said, I think a very basic meditation is to find some object of attention that is stimulating enough to ground your attention. For some people that will be simply the sensation of breathing, even at a small area like around the nose and upper lip. Or for other people that object of attention will be more vigorous, like the feeling in the body while walking or while petting their cat, or while feeling love in their heart for other people, or while repeating a word or a phrase, like “peace” or “may beings be at peace” in our mind.

Whatever works for you is good. So now you have your object of attention and in the beginning it helps to build the muscle with a little bit of steadiness for that object of attention for half a minute, or a minute or five minutes or ten minutes in a row. And, then at the point that your steadiness is pretty established, when you are pretty able to stay with that object of attention, then see if you can increasingly relax and kind of include the whole stream of consciousness flowing through you, not resisting anything that’s in it, not trying to stop thinking or hearing or feeling or worrying or anything else, but disengaging from it, resting continually in your object of attention while you just kind of “be” rather than “do”.

And I should add as well that for many people their form of meditation you can call prayer, in other words there is a sense of doing it in relationship to or with or as something transcendental the sense of the divine inside, or praying to Jesus or Mother Mary or Rama, whatever that might be for them. I just want to include that as a very important kind of meditation for people.

And just to sum up here the research-based findings of the benefits of meditation and related mindfulness practices for physical and mental health are just enormous.

If the drug companies could patent meditation for its proven benefits, we would be seeing ads for meditating every night on television, and maybe fewer ads for Prozac.

Elisabeth: Can I ask you about your own personal meditation practice?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Oh sure, I started back in 1974 and I’ve been doing this a long time in different ways, in different settings.   Sometimes people will go off and they will do a day or a morning or even a week or a month who knows even longer retreat practice where all they are really doing is their practice.

In my own case, I’ve been doing this long enough to do different things. But the essence of it for me is that I try to abide to that which I aspire. And, so what I aspire to is a mind that’s free of craving and clinging, a mind that is naturally rested in a sense of contentment, peace and love. And also a mind that’s awake and present. And, so I will typically establish a basic steadiness related to my body, abiding as a whole body breathing, and then increasingly just kind of relax and simply being present in my mind as a whole with as little sense as possible of any need to figure anything out or do any mental work or hold on to anything as it passes on by and relaxing tension, relaxing pressure, relaxing stress, releasing any sense of deficit or disturbance inside. Increasingly, there is no basis for any kind of grasping or craving or resisting or clinging. And, also to really let in the experience along the way. As you know neurons that fire together, wire together.   As we really kind of marinade in wholesome states of mind, those become increasingly encoded, increasingly wired or installed into a brain as wholesome traits. So that’s kind of a summary of what I do in my practice. And, as for myself, I’ll often have some kind of sense of connection with the transcendental as an aspect of what I do.

Elisabeth: As you know I’m quite interested in the ways that animals can enhance our meditation practice. And, I noticed that in your class, “The Foundations of Well-Being,” you mention pets quite a bit as you guide us through the meditations.   Can you describe how you believe that pets can help with meditation?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Oh, that’s interesting. For example, in my book Hardwiring Happiness it’s not about meditation per se at all; it’s really about general opportunities to look for everyday beneficial experiences and then don’t waste them on your brain, help them sink in. So, I solicited examples in which people “take in the good.” And, I got something like 900 replies back. Anyway, a large fraction of them had to do with interactions with pets–which was very touching and wonderful.

And, we had a very beloved cat for quite a long time who about 6 months ago transitioned to another place, as it were, so I have a real feeling for pets. A lot of my own practice was where I would sit on the couch in the morning in my home and Tsunami (the cat) would crawl into my lap and I would do what I called Petitation even before I heard how you talk about it, Liz. So I think that first during meditative practice, it can be helpful to someone using their pet as an object of attention or as a feeling. Having their cat in their lap or their dog snuggled up next to them is a very wonderful object of attention, because it’s warm, it’s stimulating, it’s happy, it helps you relax around it. I think it also helps people to, if they want, use the feeling of being cared about, or loved by their pet or that they are companionable with each other as an object of attention. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the sensations of breathing, for example, or some kind of word or phrase in your mind. So it’s really okay to use things that are warm-hearted and happy as objects of attention as well.

Elisabeth: What recommendations do you have for pets in meditation practice?

Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, first I would say do what works for you. Honestly, if your pet is distracting, you maybe find a place of seclusion where your pet is not so distracting on the one end. With that said, I think there are, several options. One is simply be with the physical sensations of your pet, the warmth of your cat in your lap as I would do or – you know your dog’s head resting on your knee, that’s beautiful. Or, you can listen to the sound of their breathing or you can hold them in your heart and hold their love for you in your heart, I think that would be a beautiful thing to do. Also, I know for some their most contemplative or meditative time in the day is when they take their dog for a walk.   See if you can keep from doing what often people do, just letting their mind wander all over the place or in a preoccupied way, worrying about some things or planning some things. Instead of that, see if you can continually come back to the present moment of the physical sensations of walking, the perceptions of the sounds of your animal, the world around you, observing your reactions to your animals’ reactions and its reactions to you and really continually coming into the present moment. I like that.

And, maybe last I think it’s really interesting, I mean we co-evolved with our pets, they helped our great-grandparents, dogs in particular, helped our great-grandparents live to see the sunrise. And cats became an important part of our living circumstances as well — they helped with pest control, rodent control and the pests that rodents carry for example, fleas and whatnot, and the diseases that fleas carry, so these guys helped us along.

So, I think there is a way in which being with the animal helps us feel the truth of being an animal ourselves and also takes us out into a broader feeling of the natural world, an expression of which is sitting in our lap or walking there beside us on or off the leash. I think that’s a beautiful kind of practice.

And what you are doing Liz is very creative and interesting and, I think, wonderful for people. It overlaps the general territory in what people are doing these days. Therapists or coaches, mental health people in general, often are using animal companions as important resources for learning experiences for their clients.   Equine therapy, for example, or having an animal in the therapist’s office. So I, think it’s part of a bigger picture that is wonderful and as we, as human animals, locate ourselves more honestly and gratefully in the larger network of life.

Elisabeth: So have you ever meditated with or heard of people meditating in nature?

Dr. Rick Hanson: I think that for me one of the more powerful ways I’m meditative is being out in wilderness, off trail, moving across the land, where the animals are around me and feeling like an animal myself.

Elisabeth: Oh that’s great, yeah definitely sounds like nature can be a really effective place to meditate. I was wondering what you thought about that.

Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah definitely, and nature all together, like for example, sometimes what I’ll do is use as my sense of just being present with the mind, thoughts, feeling, sensation, sound, just whatever is happening in the field of awareness. I’ll be aware of the fact that what’s arising there arises as a natural process in ways that are not very well understood yet in terms of consciousness. Certainly most people within the frame of science would consider it a natural process, even if we don’t understand it deeply, a process of subjective experience. This natural process is just sitting there feeling myself breathing and being aware of the sense of self that may arise and pass away, or points of view about different things, or emotional reactions when I imagine certain things or hear certain sounds, let’s say.

Whatever that whole process [is that]is happening, it’s an expression of underlying physical process in the synapses, the neurons, the nervous system all together, that works internally in the body all together, which is participating more broadly in a vast network of living processes. I mean, we are breathing, we inhale the exhalation of trees and other green things, and our exhalations become the basis of inhalation, in effect. That is part of a vast physical process, not necessarily a biological one, including the fact that the oxygen we breathe has been born inside the heart of an exploding star 6, 8, 10 billion or more years ago. So wow, I find, for myself, that this reflection on the absolute fact that this moment of experiencing it depends upon --- and is in some sense a local expression of, or even more exactly, a local patterning of --- a vast network of living processes. [These processes] rest upon an even vaster network of purely material, physical processes. When I have this reflection and even have some feeling of it, at this moment, it’s just a local rippling through here, this guy Rick, a local rippling through here of some, extraordinary network of process. As it reaches back in time to the Big Bang, and out in space to the universe as a whole, and back in time to biological evolution, and out currently in space to inhaling, exhalation of trees, that leads me to not take life so personally and not take living in my idea so personally. And, it gives me a feeling of enormous gratitude and oneness and peace.

Elisabeth: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Rick Hanson: I think it’s important to take in the good when we are having these experiences that are beautiful, beneficial and wholesome with, let’s say, our animal companions. Can we let those experiences land inside us? Can we give our brain the time, the 5, 10, 20 seconds it takes to really support the beginning of the encoding-installation-consolidation process of turning an experience---a momentary state---into something that actually changes neuro-structure and function, and is thereby encoded as, let’s say, a trait? So give yourself the opportunity to stay with that, to feel it in your body, to let it sink in. Times with pets are wonderful opportunities to encourage these wholesome experiences to sink in.

Elisabeth: In Petitations, we do a lot of talking about being with a pet and then coming back into your body and feeling how it affects your body.

Dr. Rick Hanson: That’s pretty sweet; that’s great.

Elisabeth: I thank you very much, Rick, for taking the time to speak with me.

Dr. Rick Hanson: This was a pleasure.

To learn more about Dr. Hanson, his website is rickhanson.net

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