Thursday, October 17, 2013

Brain Surgery Without Scalpels

10"x10" Mixed Media with Cold wax  "Setting The Inner Compass"
Near the end of September I had the pleasure of doing a weekend retreat with Rick Hanson.  I really like how he marries the Dharma to current brain research.  He even gives it a fancy layer cake kinda name: "applied neurodharma".  I'm all about the applied part of the layer cake.  If our spiritual practice doesn't help us lead increasingly saner lives, then what it's all about?  Can we be a little kinder to that neighbour who seems annoying, a little less reactive and self centred when family needs call? Can we just be quiet and listen more sometimes?

One of the major tenets of Buddhist thought is "there is suffering in this world".  I know people that say Buddhism is "negative" because it focuses on suffering but to quote John Cleese, it's really just stating the "bleeding obvious."  It didn't invent suffering, it just stopped long enough to observe this phenomena.  I used to sit with people in my old Sangha who would say they had no suffering in their lives.  This always made me raise my inner eyebrow.

6"x6" mixed media with cold wax "Following The Dots"

I liked the matter of fact way Hanson defined suffering.  He handled it like this: "Craving causes suffering and what causes craving but states of deficiency and deficit." So when we feel liked we're missing something, that we "need" something we are in a state of suffering, be it mild or intense.  If we're sick and we want to be well, that "wanting" can cause us all kinds of agitation and discomfort. If we want a cup of coffee, that can be a pretty mild form of craving (or not), one we might not even identify as suffering.

He went on to round things up with his trade mark clarity.  As humans we have 3 basic needs.
-the need to feel safe
-the need to feel satisfied
-the need to feel connected.

If these needs are not met we wander into states of deficiency which trail off into states of suffering (not one of the 50 states to the south of me, though it could be present in any of them)

Our need to feel safe relates to the oldest part of our brain, the limbic system and is the part of the brain that's hardest to change.  This is the "fight or flight" part or as Hanson referred to it "the avoidance system" of the brain.  So if you ever wondered why it is so hard to step out of the fear response, it's because this is the hardest part of the brain to change.  Hard to teach an old brain new tricks? Apparently.

This ancient part of the brain spends a lot of time scanning the environment for danger.  While this stirs anxiety and reactivity, we can thank this part of our brain for our basic survival as humans.  Hanson suggested that we spend time reminding ourselves that we are safe in the present moment (if of course this is the truth), noticing and taking in our sense of safety in our home, our car, wherever we may be. When we're feeling safe, we are open to experience feelings of peace.

6"x6" mixed media "Highways That Lead Home"
Our second need as humans is to feel satisfied or accomplished, as opposed to frustrated or disappointed.  This relates to what Hanson called our "approach and reward system". The sub cortex or mammalian part of the brain handles our needs for satisfaction.  Here we are concerned with opportunities for food, for career, for the creative aspirations of our lives.  When these needs are met we feel contented and grateful.

Our third need is to feel connected to others.  You may have read  stories of babies failing to thrive in orphanages because they are deprived of the very basic human need for connection.  Our cortex is the source of our primate need for relationship, inclusion and our need for basic human warmth.  Our need to be seen, liked and appreciated are part of our basic human needs.  This is the part of us that feels love, compassion and kindness in relation to others.  The absence of  feelings of connection are sources of hurt, loneliness, and unworthiness.  We have all experienced these whether real or imagined.
6"x8" mixed media "Pilgrimage To The East"

Hanson talked about green zones and red zones as ways of thinking about these systems.  When our needs are met, we are living in the green zone.  If we feel deficient in any one of these areas we tip over into deficiency and find ourselves in the red zone.

One of the things I found  interesting was how we can deal with the "deficient" states when we find ourselves there.  I think finding our way out of the red zone is often a source of confusion.  If you are feeling deficient in the "need for connection" area of life ie, feeling lonely or left out", it's not hugely helpful to notice that you feel safe, or to work more diligently on your career aspirations.  That may improve things slightly or temporarily, but the real need for love and connection is not being addressed.  This clarity is so helpful when we (or others) are experiencing suffering or feelings of things not being right.  And while a bag of popcorn tastes good, it doesn't really address feelings of unworthiness or feeling left out.   Hanson recommends taking in the good in all areas of these systems, reminding ourselves regularly where in our lives we are safe, accomplished and loved.  Over time we can actually change the structure of our brains by taking in the good in our lives.  And who among us doesn't wish for a new brain sometimes??


  1. Enjoyed the levity in this writing...Cleese and popcorn...Not so sure about "science" as such. As Dalai Lama said "science is just proving what "we" have known for five thousand years."....i am prepared to be shouted-down!

    1. It's true that science is proving old teachings but it motivates me to know I can change the structure of my brain! For me that really speaks of change and it just adds another dimension to the Dharma. Cleese and popcorn: when you put them together, right next to each other, it sounds like good winter hibernation activity! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Thank you for passing on what you learned. It makes a lot of sense -- to me, anyway.

  3. yes, it is sensible, isn't it? I think that's what appeals to me too. yep it's all about sharing the goody bag!

  4. ooooh, carole! these paintings!!


  5. thanks Lynne! I'm feeling so much better about my work. I am channeling Jeane (lol)

  6. fascinating! definitely food for thought - I truly think the first painting is just lovely - such a strong whisper xo

  7. thanks, Jeane. I love that, "whispers" always so much food for thought floating around.

  8. I like the '3 basic needs'... and your concept of highways to home... the connections that matter.

  9. we immediately recognize these as true, don't you think, these 3 needs?

    I have painted over this little one, who knows what it will want to call itself now!

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