This week, we’re joined by trained Neuropsychologist and Theravada Buddhist teacher, Rick Hanson, to explore what he calls “applied Neurodharma.” We begin by exploring the 1st noble truth of suffering, but from the perspective of evolutionary neurobiology. In other words, why does it appear that we’re hard-wired to suffer, and what are the mechanisms behind it?
And just as in the 4 noble truths, where we start with the diagnosis and end with a prescription, after exploring the 1st noble truth, Rick shares some suggestions for training the mind to overcome some of the hardwired tendencies we have to fixate on the negative. These suggestions come both from the Buddhist tradition, as well as directly from what we know of the distributed nervous system (and the Brain) from modern-day neuroscience.
Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I’m here in a very strange hotel called the Custom Hotel in Los Angeles, and I’m interviewing a special guest, Rick Hansen. Rick, thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Rick: Thank you.
Vince: And just a little background about how I found Rick. You were sending me a couple chapters from your newest book, Buddha’s Brain, a few months ago and I was like, “Oh! This is going to be really cool.” So I went ahead and got a copy and have been reading a little bit of it. And then also came to LA with my wife this weekend and attended a daylong that you did for Inside LA, called the Neurology of Awakening. And it was really fascinating and I took extensive notes so I could ask you a couple good questions. And just a little background for yourself. You’re a trained neurologist.
Vince: Neuropsychologist. And you’re also a Spirit Rock Dharma teacher. You’re in the Community Dharma Leader program there. And also served on the board for about nine years. So you have both an academic grounding in psychology and neuroscience and also a dharmic grounding. You’ve been practicing since ‘74, right? Thirty-four years. So you have this really interesting kind of combination that we love to explore here on Buddhist Geek.
Rick: Okay, great. I love to be explored. No cavity search! [laughs]
Vince: Okay! [laughs] So to start off one thing I found in the daylong that you did was really interesting you were kind of reinterpreting the Buddha’s core teachings on suffering, the first noble truth. In terms of evolutionary neuropsychology I was wondering if you could say why is it from the perspective of neuropsychology and the evolution over time of how our brains and bodies have developed. Why is suffering so prevalent in our experience?
Rick: Great question. Well, first just to create a bit of a context here. You know the dharma has worked, in terms of principles and practices, for 2500 years. And you don’t need an EEG or an MRI to sit and observe your own experience and cultivate the wholesome, and the abandonment of the unwholesome, and engage wise effort and move forward on the path of practice. All kinds of people have moved far on that path over the centuries. And some people have gone all the way, arguably, to its end, if there ever is really an end to that path, which is a whole debate within the dharma community, as we know. So that’s the larger point.
Inside that then the question becomes where does neuroscience or Western psychology add value? And that for me is really an interesting question. I think often it doesn’t, it’s just sort of glamorous and we have to be aware of the tendency to grasp after the glamour or glamorize ourselves as teacher,s and try to look good because we’ve got really cool MRI shots or fancy terminology we can drop into conversation. I think on the other hand where it does add value is in different kinds of ways. One way is that it explains physically why the dharma works, or what a dharma point translates to or operationalizes out as, in the causes and conditions that are embedded in the human body, nervous system and evolutionary history. That informing us aids conviction, and conviction is a factor of awakening. Conviction, faith, motivation. Motivation’s extremely important on the path. The second thing it does is that it turns us onto what really matters, or what’s really useful, particularly for an individual householder who wants to practice deeply at this place in time, out of the 10,000 tools, if you will, in the toolbox laid out through 2500 years of practice both that the Buddha initially laid out, and then all the innovations and adaptations since.
So, in that larger context of respect, yeah. I went after it. I thought, “Wow. How could we imagine the four noble truths, especially the first two, in an evolutionary framework?” And then in addition to that, I’ve in particular gotten really interested in how do we translate this understanding into actual practices? In other words, the Buddha taught very profoundly of course about causes and conditions. Well, where are those causes and conditions most immediately localized? Hello. Inside our own nervous system, headquartered in the brain. So if we start to understand those causes and conditions inside our own head as they manifest moment-to-moment to moment-to-moment in lived experience, which is what we really care about as a bottom line, and moment-to-moment in the tendencies of mind and heart that incline us toward helpfulness or harmfulness. If we can understand that better, we can do something about it. So that’s the larger frame here for me.
And a recurring theme, and I’ll just say it right now, is the whole notion of using the mind to change the brain to change the mind. In other words, the flow of mental activity maps one to one to neural activity unless there’s additionally a transcendental factor X… I personally think there is. Some people think there isn’t. Won’t have that debate right here but that said, apart from some transcendental X factor, whatever name or no name at all, the mind is what the brain does. Ok, it’s a brain, it’s embedded in a larger, obviously, web, Indra’s Net, if you will, of causes and conditions that include the body as a whole human culture and biology, nature broadly defined both moment-to-moment and in evolutionary time. But, proximally, locally, the brain is the bottomline. So, if you’re interested in skillfulness, it really makes sense to get more skillful with the human brain.
So, in that larger context, suffering is the noble truth that I’ve not been very interested in. It’s stated typically the truth of suffering. In other words, it’s not so much that life is suffering, but although some people might interpret it that way, you might think there is a irreducible suffering inherent in moment-to-moment experiencing, and I think there’s actually some truth to that. But the larger point is that there is suffering. OK?
So, the question then becomes, why do we have this capacity for suffering? And, more pointedly, did we evolve to suffer as a mechanism of gene transmission? Right? And so, I tackle that, and I still think we do, and so to say kind of quickly here.
Vince: Yes, please.
Rick: So, I’ll say it like this. How do organisms survive? Kind of brutally, simply, they do it, basically, through three mechanisms. One, is they establish separations, boundaries between themselves and the world, an inner and an outer. In other words, a virus, or a protozoa help lizard, the squirrel, a monkey, a man and woman establish distinctions between themselves and the world. If those distinctions are breached, the organism will die. So, it has to separate in some sense from its world.
The second thing the organism has to do is it has to stabilize homeostatic equilibrium, because if they move outside of their healthy ranges, or if the set points that they oscillate around change outside of the ranges that will enable the organism to survive and pass on its genes, or if they change too rapidly, there’s too much instability or chaos in them, under any one of those conditions, the organism will die and it won’t pass on gene copies. I’m speaking here of physical biological evolution, not spiritual evolution, but good old fashion Darwinian evolution, which is accomplished through down and dirty, brutally simple mechanical reproductive advantage accumulating over generations. So, that’s the second mechanism of survival, maintaining stability.
The third mechanism is to approach opportunities and avoid threats. That then gets built out with organisms that have a nervous system, which is to say multi-cellular creatures that have evolved over the last 600 million years or so. We approach the pleasant and we avoid the unpleasant. So, right there, we have feeling tone, the second of the aggregates embedded in the nervous system as a major mechanism of survival.
Well, so far, so good in terms of gene copies. Right? But Mother Nature does not care if we suffer She doesn’t care about quality of life, she cares about grandchildren, if you will. So, what happens is that each of these mechanisms bumps into a fundamental fact that it pushes against the actual nature of existence. Inside the nervous system are alarm systems that signal pleasure and pain and it definitely signal pain, a.k.a., pain or suffering, when this mechanism, extreme mechanisms are challenged.
But here is the problem, first, mechanism, separation. Everything is intertwined, fundamentally. All distinctions are partial and somewhat arbitrary at the highest level. So, endlessly, the organism is bumping in this situation where it discovers that it is actually part of a larger whole, in ways that often trigger alarm signals. Second, stability, well, how do you do that with anicca everything is changing? … “I’m the kind of guy who thinks, but isn’t impermanence permanent?” But, we won’t go there. Right?
Anyway, again, how do you stabilize what’s endlessly changing? And because things are endlessly changing, that signal creates endless alarm signals inside the organism. “Ahh, too much changed. Out of range. Ooh, change is so point back.” Suffering.
And then third, the procedural pleasure, the avoidance of pain. Short term, there’s not suffering embedded in that. But what if you can’t get that pleasure? What if that pleasure is not so great? What if that pleasure ends? What if you fear the ending of the pleasure? That’s suffering again. Alternately, the unpleasant, and pleasant is painful. By definition, it’s not pleasant, and sometimes, excruciatingly unpleasant, as in either the physical pain or old age disease and death, the three messengers, or in social pain, because we’re very social animals, we care about others, which is wonderful, but when they’re harmed or at risk of harm we suffer as well. So for all three reasons then you can see a kind of embedding of the truth of dukkha in human experience, and in biological evolution. That’s a given. And then the question of course is what do we do about it. But anyway, that’s the first truth so there you go.
Vince: Right. And I thought it was interesting you mentioned during the daylong that we’re somehow conditioned to really cling to the suffering when it arises as well. Like neurologically we’re five times more likely to notice the suffering than we are notice the pleasant stuff. And I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that and what’s kind of the neurological basis of that and why does that happen?
Rick: Right. You’re getting at what’s called the negativity bias of the brain, and it’s the idea that in evolution, while we are trained of course to pursue carrots and avoid sticks, and in some sense we’re the best at that of any organism on the planet, we’re at the top of the food chain and have proliferated really, really effectively. Sticks and carrots are not equal. In other words, if you miss a carrot today you’ll get a chance at one tomorrow. But if you do not duck a stick today you probably would not have a crack at carrots tomorrow. And so we have evolved systems in the brain that preferentially look for negative information; they’re constantly scanning for threats. Opportunities are important but watch out for threats. And then when they detect a threat, they super-focus on the threat. The one bad tile in a mosaic of 100 tiles, let’s say. I mean bad pragmatically, not morally. And then once they focus on it there are preferential memory systems that really zero in on that information and register and record it. And then there are other systems that preferentially access it when anything like that stick is encountered down the road again. And so the net result of that, and I’ll talk how that happens neurologically in a minute if you want, the net result of that is that in the formation of implicit memory, distinct from explicit memory for specific events, in the formation of implicit memory, which is the part of the mental iceberg that’s below the waterline. It’s the great bulk of the registration of lived experience deep and neurological structure which then shapes and determines the experience of living and also how we act. Helpfully or harmfully with others. Anyway, the slow registration of lived experience ii implicit memory is preferentially nudged toward the negative even if most of life is positive.
Now, we’re not doomed. Hopefully most of our life is positive, so there’s enough to outbalance the negative even with the negativity bias. But studies have shown that interactions in a relationship, an ongoing relationship, it typically takes about five positive interactions to neutralize a negative one. Also for example, people will work much harder to avoid a loss than they’ll work, on the average, the average person, to gain an equivalent reward. So that’s the negativity bias of the brain. I say it’s like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.
So then to me it gets really important to accomplish what the Buddha talked about: bhavana; cultivation. How do we cultivate the wholesome and how do we increasingly incline the mind toward the greater good really for ourselves and all beings, and thereby defeat this priming that we have? This deep inclination we have toward fear and aggression, because that’s how we manage threats, or appeasing, or freezing. That’s a classic is a flight-fright / freeze-appease behavioral repertoire. A way to do that is really look for and cultivate positive experiences, not in a deluded pollyanna way but rather in a very clear-eyed, tough-minded, self-compassionate way that’s also based in justice. Because if you think about it, if most of the experiences we’re having, or most of the facts in our world, positive facts are the basis for positive experiences, and facts both in the outer world as well as facts in terms of our own qualities, we’re much better people than we usually credit ourselves with being, moment-to-moment-to-moment.
So if we’re not seeing clearly, in other words if we’re violating the Buddha’s statement that the fundamental root of suffering is ignorance, is not seeing clearly. If we’re not seeing clearly the positive facts within us, or the positive facts within the world, we’re planting the seeds of suffering right then and there. And we’re also planting the seeds of harming other people because when we don’t feel full inside we naturally feel we have less to offer others. Or if we’re cranky or anxious we’re going to be excessively reactive to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune thrown by other people. Or that we think are thrown by other people. And so for both those reasons it really makes sense, both in terms of moment-to-moment quality of life, as well as becoming more beneficial to other people. It makes sense to look for the positive, and then particularly take 20, 30 seconds to register it. Because it usually takes longer to register a positive experience than a negative one.
And the trick there, just in passing here, is to do what any school teacher knows works best for kids to learn things, or any trainer knows or any teacher knows, make the experience as intense as possible. Make it as bodily felt, as multi-modal sensory as possible, and make it last as long as possible. Right? Intensity, embodiment and duration: that’s how you get neurons to fire together and that’s when they wire together, in the famous saying from the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” It’s kind of mechanical at a brutally basic level in the architecture of the brain. You want to get more neurons firing together so they get more neurons wiring together. And that’s what stitches neural structure together.
So specifically the… probably circuitry of the brain that’s particularly involved in the negativity bias at the emotional level is the duo of the amygdala and the hippocampus. There are actually two of them. They’re bi-lateral; in other words there’s one on each side of the brain, but we speak of them in the singular usually. The amygdala’s like the alarm bell. The hippocampus is involved in memory for events, and particularly for the context in which events occur. And the amygdala in particular is primed to go negative. It lights up when something’s really, really pleasant but it’s especial, the majority, about two thirds of the cells within it, are built out to track negative experiences. So that right there is the neural embodiment in one form of the negativity bias.
It’s also the case that, if you think about it, we have so many stress hormones that are really focused on responding to negative experience because, again, that’s what helps lizards and monkeys and humans pass on their genes. So we have lots of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, norepinephrine, and so forth, but we don’t have an equivalent massive army of very powerful, fast acting hormones that tilt us toward positive experience. Yes, they exist. Oxytocin, endorphins, other natural opiates: yes they’re there but they just don’t have the same urgency and the same dominance, if you will, as the stress response, “negative” hormones. So that’s why I think it’s really important to realize that from the standpoint of quality of life and spiritual practice long term, the brain is tilted against us. So to level the playing field we’ve got to really tilt toward the positive.
Vince: Nice. And it was interesting, in the daylong you gave these kind of five guidelines for how to do that. And you showed that each one of them were kind of connected to the brain in certain ways. That was a really interesting exercise. But I’m sure people can read about it more in Buddha’s Brain and check it out in other places but it seems like that’s one of the things you’ve been focusing on is specifically how do you level the playing field?
Rick: That’s great. I don’t mind saying the five things, which are just… I think of them as five good foundations for helping the mind to steady. Because again, in evolution, even though there’s an incredible emphasis… I mean, of the three pillars of practice, right, samadhis one of the three. Steadiness of mind, which I personally believe has been generally under-emphasized as Buddhism moved to the West. For reasons, probably some good reasons and maybe some bad ones as well. But steadying the mind’s incredibly important.
But a) we live in an ADD kind of culture, right? b) the brain didn’t evolve to steady. It evolved to be skittery, vigilant. Any animal in the wild that just gets absorbed contemplatively into some local stimulus like its breath or the sunlight on the water, it gets eaten. Because it’s not tracking endlessly. You watch animals in the wild: birds eating on the ground, squirrels in a tree. They’re constantly looking, right, watching out. So anyway, how do we steady the mind? So first, just to go back slightly, one of the ways…
That’s exactly what I really think about. If I were to say a phrase I think of what we do, what I do, is applied Neurodharma. That’s what I’m really interested in. Yeah. It’s applied, that’s what really turns me on. It’s cool theoretically and intellectually. Buddhism is a path of practice not a path of philosophy. The Buddha was first and foremost a great yogi, a great teacher. A great doctor if you will. He used that, to move through the philosophy concept. It’s really a path of what works. It’s pragmatic and empirical. So in that sense it’s extremely harmonious with the meta-model of western science.
So, all that said, when a person does the thing I said a moment ago I’ll ask them to take in the good, in other words, to let the positive event in fact become a positive experience. Because a lot of time good things are happening, but the needle doesn’t move with our actual motions of our body.
Second, really really relish it, savor it, enjoy it. You know, the Buddha talked about tons and tons of positive experiences. We tend to think of these traditions as downer or bummer and don’t catch me smiling, but actually he was joyful! He talked about gladdening the heart, two of the five factors of the jhanas are emotionally positive. Add the words to the list joy, one of the seven primary factors to awakening tranquility, is in fact very positive. Rapture is also a factor of awakening. So we’ve got two of the seven are affectively positive. So, it’s important to really savor and relish these things.
That’s the second step that gets these neurons to fire together and wire together, and the third step is to really sense and intend that the experience is sinking into you. Technically, you’re using pre-frontal executive control systems in ways that are still not well understood, to prime and kind of encourage and activate memory systems so that these experiences really sink into your subconscious. So for me that’s an example of neurologically informed methods to do the one about steadying mind.
At the beginning of sitting, or at the beginning of practice, if someones kind of new to it, and it’s not that natural to kind of drop into presence with yourself. The trick is to sustain the presence, most of us can do it for three or four breaths but once that sixth or seventh or seventeenth breath come along and you just fall off.
So lets see… number one, set an intention either talk down with words or bottom up in an embodied sense by sitting like the Buddha or sitting like a teacher. Sitting like Jack Kornfield or other teachers I’ve known through the years to kind of embody that intentionality. Somewhat akin to the noble path and wise intention. Setting and path are very important and what setting and intention does is it primes systems in the brain to go in a certain direction, and it already starts inclining the direction.
Second is to relax, do some exhalations to literally relax the body. Touch your mouth if you want. What that does is activates the parasympathetic wing of the autonomic nervous system and down-regulates stress response, fight or flight sympathetic brain. The reason for doing that to relax, which again is a traditional instruction… Nothing that I’m saying here, these five things, are not found somewhere in the warehouse of Buddhist methods. But I’m calling out ones that make a lot of sense neurologically. Sometimes we just kind of bypass, but when we use them we really are facilitating. I’ll sometimes go through them I haven’t practiced in quite a while but I’ll sometimes go through them just to give my mind set a little jump. Takes about a minute to go through all 5 but then you’ve laid a foundation neurologically you know you’ve kind of set yourself up to succeed. So parasympathetic arousal helps settle us down so we can bring attention inward and steady. When we’re sympathetically activated that drives attention toward rapid scheming and a skitteriness. That’s to me one reason why so much practice is required. Finding a place of tranquility, settling down.
The third technique is to really help yourself feel safer as much as you can. We’ve evolved to be very visual externally, and that keeps us alive, but it pulls attention resources away from bringing attention inward. So if you do, it it’s appropriate to remind yourself that you’re relatively safe, and that there is no perfect safety in this world, but there is greater felt safety. In other words a felt sense of safety that’s congruent with the actual safety we experience. We usually fell much less safe than we would like to. Which is needless suffering right there. As the brain develops an ongoing trickle of anxiety, trying to walk across the street or a mall or into the living room without any sense of the low level trickle of anxiety, interesting mindfulness practice and difficult to do. So, try to help yourself feel safer.
Fourth step is to activate positive emotion as best you can. Embody it, the Thich Nhat Hanh’s half smile is an effective method. Think about things that gladden the heart, in the language of the Buddha. Often positive emotion is mild or subtle but it’s still important nonetheless, like gratitude or a sense of contentment or gladness that I am now finally sitting down to meditate. Or just something that makes you happy. I think about my kids. People think about pets I go to … Meadows in my mind sometimes, because that makes me happy to think about being in the mountains. Whatever makes you happy. That does all kinds of really good things, positive emotions do. It down-regulates the sympathetic nervous system, which has all those other benefits I described. It also motivates us to do practice because it’s rewarding.
And interestingly it does that through multiple means, they include two neurotransmitter systems, dopamine and norepinephrine. In other words when we’re experiencing arousal, and positive emotions are arousing and rewarding, we then activate dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is involved in gating attention, so high, steady levels of dopamine–in ways I explain in the book–block the gate to working memory. In other words, they block the gate, as it were, for information to come flooding into the as Bernard Bars calls it, “the global workspace of consciousness.” I think of it as like the mental chalkboard in a sense. Or a meadow. And we want to keep the critters out if we’re trying to steady the mind on one object of attention, like the breath or a mantra or loving kindness or something like that, or some investigation we’re doing. Well, how do you keep the gate to the meadow closed? Because Mother Nature wants to pop that gate open. A lot. So you’ll notice threats and even new opportunities. Well, high steady levels of dopamine keep that gate closed. Because steady dopamine keeps it closed, and high steady dopamine blocks spikes of dopamine from coming in from the possibility of new rewards or new threats. So feeling good steadily helps you steady the mind, which is why I think it’s no accident that two of the five jhana factors have a lot of positive emotion in them.
It’s also cool that dopamine and norepinephrine facilitate synaptic formation. I mean, practice is a path of learning in a broad sense. We want to build wholesome neural structure and we want to unbuild, if you will, unwholesome neural structure and replace it with wholesome neural structure. How do we do that? Well, dopamine and norepinephrine facilitate neurons stitching together and forming new neural structure, literally at the chemical level. So if you prompt them through positive emotion you’re going to learn more from the sitting than you would otherwise. The other thing is that norepinephrine is arousing and it helps us stay alert, when we’re trying to track some kind of ongoing, somewhat unstimulating, even boring, like the breath over and over or something like that. Norepinephrine is a general alerting and orienting neurotransmitter and hormone that kind of says, “Wake up,” to the brain as a whole, “Pay attention.” So that’s some of the results from deliberately focusing on positive emotion at the beginning of a sit.
And then the last step I think is just to intend and sense that the benefits of the meditation–and it’s not always through sitting practice, it could be in all kinds of other forms of practice, walking or karma yoga, if you will. Doing dishes on a retreat or in your kitchen at home–that you’re intending and sensing that the benefits are sinking into you. There you are again doing the taking in the good thing that I talked about earlier, and defeating the negativity bias of the brain.
So those are five methods that I think are very practical, people can do them, they’re very sensible. And see if you get results from them. That’s the bottom line. I think the Buddha and Dr. Phil are basically asking the same question all the time: “How’s that working for you?” It’s like the bottomline karma question. Yeah, okay, what are the results? So, see what the results are. But I don’t know, they make neurological sense. I think it’s all kind of cool actually to think about how what we’re doing in our mind is activating these amazing states in our brain. And also to realize, Wow, so much of what the Buddha taught in a completely different culture, mostly pre-literate, certainly pre-industrial, somewhat feudal, patriarchal, ancient culture… So much of what he taught was incredibly neurologically savvy.
The thing is he knew that if he did A, mental activity A, you would get mental result C. And the C state is the target state. He didn’t know what was happening in the brain, B. In other words, mental activity A activates brain state B which then activates and fosters mental state C, that’s our target of interest that we’re aiming for, like, greater steadiness of mind, or liberating insight, or cultivating loving-kindness. But what’s available increasingly through neuroscience is we’re starting to connect the dotted lines between mental activity A, brain state B, and then how brain state B fosters mental state C, that’s our target of interest.
What I like to do a lot, and that’s a major theme in the book, is reverse engineering. To take this very precise descriptions, especially in the Pali Canon, and I think, not to knock the Mahayana in there as well, I’m just more grounded in the Theravada way. But, in any case, to read these descriptions of the path of awakening or the steadying of the mind like, for example, the Buddha has a road map, that’s fairly commonly repeated of, that one should study the mind internally, quiet it, bring it to singleness, and then concentrate it. Or, the description of the jhanas. Right? The eighth pillar of the Noble Eightfold Path. Or, the run up to Nirvana, that the Buddha described repeatedly in his own experience or when he describes a progressive process leading to cessation and Nirvana. Well, what in the world could be happening in the brain?!
In other words, if there’s this one-to-one mapping of mental states to neurostates. Ok, we have a very precise description of mental states. How could they be operationalized in the nervous system? And then my understanding, how they are or could be operationalized, at least to some extent in the nervous system, has people progressed on the path or truly awakened beings? Let’s reverse-engineer, let’s think, what can we do to stimulate and strengthen those brain states? Because if you stimulate them, you strengthen them. Because you’re firing those neurons, so you’re wiring those neurons. How can we stimulate and strengthen those brain states, right, that are the basis of those wonderful mind states of interest?
So that here in life, here in our household or life in the West, we can actually promote those brain states better and get more of those mental states that are targets of interest. So that, to me, is the essence of what the opportunity is and why, I think, there’s such a turn on in this area because you start realizing, “Holy Molly, we’re starting to get the wiring diagram at the black box.” We knew that if we did this kind of amazing skillful things kind of in our mind, we get a result in our mind. But we never really knew what in the world was going on deep in the black box. Now, we’re getting a wiring diagram, and then we can get at the causes and conditions in the black box in skillful means.