Saturday, March 10, 2012

Taking In the Good! ...

Negative images, stories and experiences can permeate the lives of those of us who care for the suffering or traumatized, often leading to pessimism, low mood, irritability, anxiety, learned helplessness, relational difficulties and other signs of compassion fatigue.

And, to make matters worse, we humans have evolved a "negativity bias" in order to ensure our species survival. That is to say, in order to survive as a species, we have developed the tendency to pay more attention to negative experiences than to positive ones. (ie It is better to attend to the tiger stalking in the bushes than to the delicious meat roasting on the fire if we want our genes to carry on to another generation.)

This protective negative focus of attention, and the negative thoughts and feelings that flow from it, can, through a process called neuroplasticity, cause actual changes in brain structure - which then perpetuate the negative focus, thoughts and feelings. (It's a vicious circle.)

Dr Rick Hansen, PhD, author, neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, has studied neuroplasticity in depth and describes the negativity bias this way:
The negativity bias makes the brain like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.
Now, the good news in all this negativity is that we can use the same neuroplastic process to build our stress resilience and to bring more joy into our lives! We can do this by engaging consciously in a 3 step process that Dr Hansen calls, taking in the good. As Dr Hansen says:

Taking in the good (TIG) is not a Pollyanna-ish notion of endless positivity. (There are benefits to negative experiences - anger can fuel positive change, loss can make our hearts more compassionate, remorse can teach us higher values.) Rather, taking in the good is a focused psycho-spiritual practice of becoming aware of, and intentionally taking in, the positive experiences in our lives so as to re-sculpt our brains and thus our outlooks.

So, taking in the good is not a matter of denying the negative, but of weaving positive emotions, optimism, and resilience into our brains and our selves along side the negative. But how do we take in the good, exactly?

Dr Hansen's premise is that just having positive experiences is not enough.  Positive experiences tend to pass through the brain like water, while negative experiences get caught. We need to engage positive experiences actively to weave them into our brains:

Three Steps to Taking in The Good:

1.  Help a good fact to become a good experience.  
  • Look at positive facts and let them become positive experiences. Pay attention to the good things in your world and inside yourself - the sun going down over an open field, the taste of a good meal, reading a great book, finishing the laundry, receiving a loving hug from your child, a kindness done, controlling your anger, lovely spring flowers, getting to the gym - and allow them to feel good, thus producing positive experiences.
2.  Savour the positive experience.
  • Sustain the good feeling for 10-20-30 seconds without getting distracted. 
  • Feel and intensify the experience in as many ways as you can. Do this at least 6 times a day.
  • Notice any reluctance to feel good - thinking that you don't deserve it, that its selfish, vain or   shameful or that if you relax into it, something bad will happen.
  • Acknowledge the reluctance then turn your mind back to feeling good.
3.  Sense and intend a soaking in.
  • Sense and intend that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body - registering deeply in emotional memory. You might want to visualize it flooding your chest with golden light or you might want to just think about it, conceptually, as a positive experience held in awareness.

Over time, your attention to positive experiences, using these three steps, will begin to change your brain structure and your outlook will alter as well. Why not give it a try? It could just change your life!

If you would like to learn more about taking in the good, try reading Rick Hansen's book, The Buddha Brain, or watching his videos on YouTube. 

No comments: