Not many people smudge palo santo, light a scented candle, and repeat the mantra, “I am not good enough.” But given the strobe light of self-loathing most people admit to in therapy or after a few beers, you’d think we make a concerted effort to make ourselves feel like shit. Rewiring the brain away from inadequacy and toward lasting happiness can be achieved through deliberate thought. Hard work, bleh! But it’s a guide to reclaiming your self-worth. So if you want to dip out to Instagram right now, go right ahead.
“Unfortunately the brain has a negativity bias—it’s like Teflon for good experiences and Velcro for bad ones,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness. Hanson is a bridge between neuroscience and mindfulness. In spiritual circles cluttered with goofy thinking (sorry, but The Secret was BS,) Hanson makes no metaphysical claims about the power of mindfulness to magically summon a Ferrari into your driveway. Instead, he focuses on mindfulness as a method of restructuring the brain and shifting your perception of reality.
“We evolved to compare ourselves to others,” says Hanson. “Denying that truth just makes it worse.”
The structure of social comparison is two parts—you versus the other. But while comparison may be inherent to the plight of humanity, Hanson offers powerful techniques to groove new neural pathways that will make you happier.
The Rewiring Process
It’s a two-part process: Activation and installation.
Let’s say you’re a rock climber plagued with the mind of Larry David: The wall is big, my fingers are weak and Alex Honnold is better than me. On your next climb, activate new neural pathways by focusing as intensely as possible on the task at hand. And when you hear Honnold whisper, “You suck,” over your shoulder, gently move your focus back to the present moment and find the next hold. Then repeat.
“When we focus intently on something, little tendrils start reaching toward each other within a matter of minutes,” says Hanson. “Capillaries bring blood and oxygen and glucose to busy regions. Neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin start flowing. Connectivity changes. Literally the structure and function of your brain shifts depending on where you rest your attention.”
Once you’re finished with the day’s climb and you’re packing up your gear, the next step is installation. Sit down on a rock, close your eyes and follow the following practice as outlined in this except from Neurodharma:
Sustain the experience for a breath or more: The longer an experience is held in working memory, the greater its conversion into long-term memory.
Feel it in your body: The amygdala and hippocampus work closely together. Experiences that are somatically and emotionally rich stimulate the amygdala. This increases its signals to the hippocampus and other parts of the brain that the experience is important and worth converting into a lasting change in neural structure or function.
Focus on what is pleasurable or meaningful about it: As the sense of reward in an experience increases, so does the activity of two neurochemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine. This flags the experience for protection and prioritization as it moves into long-term storage.
The final step is to sleep on it. The brain consolidates new information during slow-wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, so invest in a bed and blackout curtains and sleep your way to a better brain.
Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together
Learning to train your attention is not a selfish project: It benefits everyone in your life. Inadequacy is a self-important, “woe is me” attitude that frankly sucks to be around. It robs us of the present moment, shackles us to a smaller version of ourselves, and is totally unnecessary.
There's an old adage that everyone has a book inside of them. Narrative psychology studies how we take experiences and turn them into stories, and depending on how we arrange the plot points, this has huge implications on mental health. When someone asks, “What’s your story?” we cherry-pick events, derive meaning, then construct a narrative. Studies have shown that people who see themselves as victims, and highlight events to support that narrative, tend to have poorer mental health. People who base their life story around the theme of redemption tend to have greater well-being.
By using Hanson’s techniques of experiencing the feeling you want to have, then reflecting on it, you are building evidence that can shape a new life story.
The term, “dharma” can be translated to “understanding the nature of reality.” What is true? This is perhaps the most important question we can ask. Hanson defines neurodharma as the truth of the mind grounded in the truth of the body, particularly in the nervous system.
We may never understand the limits of imagination or the scope of the universe, but we can begin the project of taking better care of ourselves now, and the only entry fee is the willingness to focus. The more we observe our minds the more we can see that most of our inadequacies are just stories, and, little by little, thought by thought, we can rewire our brains. As neuropsychologist Donald Hebs famously said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
There is a piece of Buddhist literature known as Dhammapada, and in it, there is a saying: “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.”
Listen to my podcast with Rick Hanson here