In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson identifies three key ways to manage your mind:
“Imagine that your mind is like a garden. You could simply be with it, looking at its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. Second, you could pull weeds by decreasing what’s negative in your mind. Third, you could grow flowers by increasing the positive in your mind.”
In other words: let be, let go and let in.
But how do we do this when — in Rick’s words — a “storm” (something difficult or uncomfortable) comes to your garden?
1. LET BE
“First, be with your experience. Observe it and accept it for what it is even if it’s painful.”
It’s this practice of just being with our experience, observing it, that gives us perspective — “like stepping out of a movie screen and watching from twenty rows back,” Rick says.
I’m reminded of this wisdom from Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
If we’re not mindful of negative thoughts or feelings when they arise, we are likely to react mindlessly — missing the space Frankl spoke of — and there’s no telling where those thoughts or feelings may take us.
Just being aware of our thoughts or feelings immediately diminishes their power.
2. LET GO
“Second, when it feels right — which could be a matter of seconds with a familiar worry or a matter of months or years with the loss of a loved one — begin letting go of whatever is negative.”
Sometimes, just being with negative thoughts or feelings is enough for them to fade away. In most cases, though, it requires a conscious effort to let them go. Rick gives the example of relaxing your body to release tension. Maybe you take a few deep breaths in and out.
Thoughts and feelings are energy and there must be a way for that energy to pass from our body. It’s when we hold it in that we find ourselves in turmoil. Since what we focus on expands, continuing to focus on those negative feelings will only increase the negative experience.
Two things I love about this instruction from Rick:
- When it feels right: The appropriate time for letting go of our negative thoughts or feelings varies based on what we’re experiencing. It would not be healthy to try to “let go” just seconds after you experienced something tragic. If it’s a familiar worry, though, maybe you can let it go just shortly after recognizing it.
- Begin letting go: In many cases, you can’t just immediately “drop” the negative thoughts or feelings… but you can begin. At least begin.
3. LET IN
“Third, again when it feels right, after you’ve released some or all of what was negative, replace it with something positive.”
For instance, Rick says, “you could remember what it’s like to be with someone who appreciates you, and then stay with this experience for ten or twenty seconds” — and staying with the positive experience is important.
Naturally, it feels better to dwell on something positive versus something negative, but the benefit goes much deeper than just how it feels in this moment. Amazingly, the brain actually changes — or learns — based on your experiences. Scientists call this experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
As you spend time with the positive experience, you are growing new neural circuits in your brain (in other words “hardwiring happiness”). Or said another way, “mental states become neural traits.”
In practical terms, Rick gives the example: “If you routinely practice relaxation, this will increase the activity of genes that calm down stress reactions, making you more resilient.”
In contrast, “If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries grumbling about others, hurts and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.”
It’s such a logical formula — notice the negative, let it go and then replace it with something positive — yet it requires intention and practice to follow it through. I’m grateful to have Rick’s book as a resource packed with great, practical advice to help us with the process.
Get a FREE Copy of Hardwiring Happiness
Check out my recent interview with Rick for a chance to receive one of five free copies of his new book, Hardwiring Happiness.