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RHR: Finding Happiness and Joy in Any Circumstances, with Dr. Rick Hanson


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COVID-19 has created a crisis for all of us, but we have the freedom to choose how we respond to it. In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, Dr. Rick Hanson returns to discuss three practical steps that will help you get through adversity while finding ways to experience joy and happiness.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The COVID-19 wake-up call
  • Three steps for weathering the crisis
  • Choosing to tend and befriend
  • How to move to a more calm and centered experience
  • Why you can experience happiness and joy at a time like this
  • Hanson’s new book

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome back as a guest Rick Hanson, PhD, who’s a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and a New York Times bestselling author. Rick’s books include Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture, and he’s a psychologist [who] focuses on the neuroscience of happiness and well-being.

He is a founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and he’s been a speaker at Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities around the world and has taught in meditation centers worldwide.

So, in the first interview, I talked with Rick about hardwiring happiness, what that means, and cultivating more resilience. And these are, of course, topics that are always relevant, but they’re even more timely now during the COVID-19 crisis. So I wanted to bring Rick back on to talk about how we can use these very practical tools to develop a capacity to respond to adversity and not only survive it, but actually thrive during this time. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Rick, it’s such a pleasure to have you back on the show.

Rick Hanson:  Well, Chris, when we first started, as I told you, I just saw you and I just felt instantly happy and connected. So I’m very happy to be here, as well. It’s an honor, actually,

The COVID-19 Wake-Up Call

Chris Kresser:  I feel the same way. And we were chatting before we hit the “record” button about a kind of peculiar aspect of COVID, which is that on our first podcast we did together, we talked about why it’s so important to cultivate resilience and to hardwire happiness, to use your phrase. Because in life, even before COVID, there’s always uncertainty, there are always things that we’re not in control over, and there [are] always challenges and even tragedy and catastrophe. And so, in that context, we have to actively cultivate resilience. It doesn’t just happen on its own. We have to actively pursue practices that lead to happiness.

Rick Hanson:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  When I reflected on COVID, it’s, of course, the levels of uncertainty have increased, but it’s not like uncertainty wasn’t there before. To me, it just seems that COVID has lifted the veil and made our lack of control and uncertainty and the fear that we face just that much more obvious.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah. A way I experience this is that prior to COVID landing, prior to the storm, which is now upon us, really dropping on our heads, we were all sort of propped up by the settings we were in, the activities we were doing, the interactions we were having, and the stream of experiences we were having. And so, as long as the music was playing, it all seemed so fine, right? The sun was shining, [and] everything’s okay.

But then when the bottom suddenly falls out beneath your feet, you’re left with whatever it is, whatever it is that you’ve grown inside yourself, and also developed in your most important relationships. And I, for me, one of the huge teachings of this time is, like you’re saying, a deep wake-up call about the importance of personal development and investing, investing in our own bodies, investing in our own minds, investing in our important relationships, and obviously, at the public policy level, investing in public health systems, for example.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And a similar takeaway for me is this is a wake-up call in so many different areas, all the ones that you mentioned. And there’s a way in which when we’re going about our normal lives, I think we can, there’s an illusion of full control that can take place where it really does seem like we’re running the show. We’re steering the ship and we have kind of full agency and control over what happens in our life. And there’s no question that we have some control, and I’m not saying we’re not responsible for what happens in our life in the sense that we’re able to respond. But what has really struck me about this is that the capacities that we’re being invited to develop now during this COVID epidemic are the very same ones that help us to thrive in everyday life, whatever that means for people.

So let’s talk a little bit more about some of those capacities. What are the, you speak with a lot of people, you teach, you lead classes and retreats, and I’m sure you’re hearing from a lot of your students and people you interact with about what they’re struggling with. So what are your kind of top approaches or recommendations at this point to help people weather this crisis?

You have the freedom to determine how you respond to COVID-19. Check out this episode of RHR for three steps to help you weather any storm and find a way to thrive. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

Three Steps for Weathering the Crisis

Rick Hanson:  Well, I want to underline what you just said there, Chris. It’s super deep and really profound. The exact same qualities that we’re trying to develop in ourselves in body and mind. I’m a psychologist, [and] I tend to focus on mind. You tend to focus more on body. And yet we both focus on how they intwine with each other, the mind-body process really altogether. And it just becomes a matter of kind of practical intervention where you intervene into a purpose, but that’s one unified system, obviously. And in much the same way that the kinds of things we want to develop for the highest levels of physical health or the highest levels of mental health are exactly what we need when we’re plummeted into the lowest domains of just life-and-death coping day-to-day. And that’s really a deep insight.

What I see is that, I’ve got this book coming out, and I think again and again about these seven fundamental qualities of steadiness of mind, lovingness in your heart, equanimity, emotional balance, that’s three, and then the sense of being whole, in the present, nowness, connected to everything with some intuition really of mystery, timelessness, eternity. And those are qualities that, of course, people develop as they are interested in the upper reaches, in the upper third, the upper 10th of human potential. And yet, wow, day-to-day, having a certain underlying mental stability, having compassion for yourself and others, even those who appall you.

Chris Kresser:  Especially those, right?

Rick Hanson:  Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the greatest challenges.

Chris Kresser: … practice.

1. Find Your Footing

Rick Hanson:  Yeah. That’s the edge, right? To speak to, to stand up for yourself courageously without letting hatred enter your heart. Those are really important things. Maybe we’ll end up talking about them. I’ll just highlight a couple that really stand out for me lately. So really kind of three. First, from my own background in wilderness and life-and-death situations, first find your footing. Right? There are a lot of uncertainties, there are things that are out of control, there are mixed messages, [and] potentially lethal threats for others, if not for ourselves. Find your footing. That’s really important. Listen to experts. Don’t be distracted by the noise around it all. What do scientists say? What do public health experts say? What do people like you say? Find your footing.

2. Calm and Center

Second, calm and center. Right? I think of the title of this book I read about survival in the wilderness a while ago, who lives, who dies, to put it bluntly, and the people who live are usually the ones who calm and center. They calm the body, and there are things I can talk about that do that immediately that are evidence-based, that calm the body; they center themselves, [and] they establish a kind of secure base on the inside from which they move.

3. Tend and Befriend

And then third, tend and befriend. It’s a great phrase; you may know it already.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, absolutely. Oxytocin.

Rick Hanson:  Yes, Shelley Taylor’s work, [from] UCLA, different ways of managing stress, not just fighting, fleeing, and freezing, but tending and befriending. Drawing on oxytocin, realizing that others are scared, too. Emphasizing the caring for others. We’re in this together, obviously, and befriending, right? And being like you and I did when we first started talking today. We could’ve been sort of superficially polite and like, How are you doing, man? How are you doing? Great, move on. But we both dropped in. And I think, I don’t know if we would have dropped in, in that kind of honest and authentic and a little bit of vulnerable way six months ago. It might have been more automatic because we could afford to do that, right? When the music was playing, right?

Chris Kresser:  That’s right. It’s tempting to step over it.

Rick Hanson:  But now, we really need to befriend each other and appreciate each other. So those are the big three that stand out for me. Find your footing.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I love those.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah, yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, find your footing. What was the second one?

Rick Hanson:  Calm and center.

Choosing to Tend and Befriend

Chris Kresser:  Calm and center, of course, and tend and befriend. Yeah. Those are phenomenal. And I think we could easily spend the rest of the show talking about specific strategies for doing each of those. Let’s start with tend and befriend, because this was really fresh on my mind. In fact, I just wrote an email this morning that’s not, that hasn’t been sent yet. I think it’s going out a couple days from when we’re recording this.

But it’s about, I mean, I’ve been aware of this research for some time, but I came across it again. It’s about how being of service and helping others, which of course is valuable and worth doing in its own right, but that a lot of research on resilience has shown that having a sense of purpose and helping others also helps to weather a crisis.

Rick Hanson:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And it has a powerful impact on our own well-being. There was a study of over 800 people in Detroit that found that stressful events were much more damaging to people who are less helpful to others. There are studies that a sense of purpose lengthens your lifespan and can even do things like improve your financial stability. So this is a win-win, right?

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Where we can reach out to help other people and provide a valuable service that way and help our community to respond, but that’s also going to contribute to our own resilience.

Rick Hanson:  Oh, it’s really true, and where this shows up, I think how the nature of this time is that we’re doing social isolation, sheltering in place for the sake of the greater good, obviously, as well as ourselves. Okay. And so, we’re spending less time with people we really like spending time with, and we’re thrust into close proximity, hour after hour, day after day, with people we might love but after awhile might get on your nerves.

And one of the things that I’ve really started to practice with more intensively myself is this feeling of dropping that quarrel. Disengaging from the friction. Stepping out of contentiousness faster. Frictionless with other people. And again, when we were all, everything was fine and the music was playing and so forth, all right, you could get, you could indulge a certain bickering or a certain positionality in your mind or a certain righteous case about others. But when the storm is upon us, we just can’t afford that stuff.

And so, that little practice of just letting it go by. It doesn’t matter. They’re suffering, too. It’s okay. Lighten up. Not [walking] on eggshells, not [turning] into a marshmallow, but just at the simplest level stepping out of contentiousness is a great practice.

Chris Kresser:  I love that. I’ve tried to focus on that as a parent. Of course, there are many opportunities for practice as a parent. I’ve, frankly, I think parenting for me at least is the most powerful and transformative and challenging practice of any.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah, ditto right there, man.

Chris Kresser:  I can go and do a 30-day meditation, sit, no problem.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  But put me in a room and give me a wall to stare at for 30 days, I’m in bliss.

Rick Hanson:  That’s right.

Chris Kresser:  I mean, sure, it’s hard. There are hard things about it. But maintaining that level of conscious awareness and not, and being able to witness my emotional responses and not react from that place, there’s nothing that challenges that more for me than as a parent. And so I love this advice or this counsel of, in a sense choosing your battles and watching. For me, I’ve just been watching, like, if I start to get into any kind of a power struggle with my daughter, like, how important is this in the scheme of things right now? And crises have a way of clarifying that, right? Where things that seemed important before may be not so important anymore?

Rick Hanson:  Yeah. Yeah, I’ve been reflecting on loss and gain. So, for example, our son has lived with us for a couple of years. He’s kind of used our home as base camp from which he launches out into the world. He’s a semi-professional dancer, teacher, emcee, DJ, [and] does big swing dance events a lot, and it’s a real community, as well as manages our own podcast things. So he moved out a few weeks ago so he could have a more normal social life, including being able to see his girlfriend. And it was a loss. It really hit my heart heavily on the one hand.

On the other hand, gain. Our daughter moved back from New York after almost certainly having had this thing. And that’s a gain. And so we’re mixed loss and gain and I’ve been reflecting a lot on how the uncertainties of this time, the turbulence of it, the bottom falling out, the losses of it bring our attention to what cannot be lost. It can be found, but it can never be lost, right? That underlying field, ground. I don’t mean it in a woo-woo or mystical way. I mean it like you and your daughter, right? Or my wife and me, let’s say, at the surface level, there might be a kind of a wave of micro bickering or kind of … I’ve been laughing at myself lately. I’m trying to become un-irkable. You know, irk?

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Rick Hanson:  It sounds like Orc. I like that, because I’m a Lord of the Rings junkie and to be irked. It’s so easy to be irked these days. There’s a lot about it that’s kind of irksome. And yet we can cultivate body and mind, equanimity, and so forth, that helps us be increasingly un-irkable. So, in any case, here we are, we’re being irked, let’s say with our daughter or our wife or whatnot. And yet, underneath it all, you know you love each other. There’s an underlying field of relatedness; it cannot be lost. It can be intuitive, it can be found, but it can never be lost. Right? And I think about other aspects of what is durable, what is enduring, that we can be aware of deep down inside ourselves and take refuge in, take our stand in, draw strength from, move out from. That’s a really, really deep material to increasingly rest in awareness of.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I love your point about what we cannot lose, the ground that we cannot lose. And that, of course, you can interpret that through a woo-woo lens.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  But it’s actually relatively straightforward and it’s a tremendously empowering concept, I think for me, when I really got that in a deep way. There’s a Viktor Frankl quote, which I’m sure you’ve heard, which I recently shared somewhere. It all blurs together. An Instagram video, email, whatever.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  So that’s what we’re talking about here. That we may, even when we don’t have control over the circumstances, which we’re all very much aware of right now, we do have control over the way we respond to those circumstances.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah, exactly. Like that inherent freedom of choice, existential freedom, cannot be lost, right? The awareness, just awareness as a field that can represent anything. Itself, it’s always stable, even though changing experiences move through it, or underlying good heartedness. Right? I think that’s also a very important thing to be aware of as a psychological resource. I’m a longtime psychologist, psychotherapist, and that sense of your own natural, inherent goodness. It doesn’t mean we have to be saints or we don’t mess up, whatnot. But underneath it all, there’s a good heart there, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Rick Hanson:  Like, it’s so weird. We can see that other people are good [people], right? You meet someone for three minutes at a party or whatever, and you realize, “Whoa, that person is a basically good person.” Good person. And yet, it’s so hard to recognize that about ourselves and yet it’s really true. Our good intentions cannot be lost, our underlying sincerity hereto, fundamental, deep down. So these are not woo-woo things. These are very real, and yeah.

Chris Kresser:  And very practical, as well, right?

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  One of my teachers, Cheri Huber used to say, “If we treated ourselves the way,” or “If a friend treated us the way we treat ourselves, we’d have got[ten] rid of that friend a long time ago.”

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  I love that quote because it’s so true, right? We’re willing to tolerate self-talk and judgment and blame and shame that comes internally, in our own self-talk that we would never ever tolerate from somebody else in our life, or at least hopefully not.

Rick Hanson:  One hundred percent. Wow, that’s really good.

How to Move to a More Calm and Centered Experience

Chris Kresser:  So I want to talk a little bit about calm and center because that’s, in a way, some of the other stuff we’re talking about is not really possible without calm and center. I cannot be aware of my emotional response to something my daughter does and then make a different choice in terms of how I respond to it. I can’t really embrace this Viktor Frankl quote of having the freedom to choose how I respond unless I am centered enough and even aware of what’s happening, of how I’m responding to be able to make a different choice. So I’ve always emphasized that that’s the starting place, because without that awareness, we don’t have that freedom. We’re still stuck and bound by, and really kind of just victims of, our own default internal lizard brain, hardwired human or let’s say softwired because there’s some influence that we have there. But we’re just kind of acting out our biological programming, right?

So what are you advising people [to do] now? Of course, we’ve talked a lot about mindfulness and meditation practice, but what’s something relatively accessible that people can do to start moving more toward this calm and centered experience?

Rick Hanson:  Totally central, foundational. And immediately, I think about situations in which I’m in the mountains, rock climbing or whatever, and things are starting to go badly. First and foremost, you’ve got to calm and center, you’ve got to stabilize, right? And then you move out from there. So some things that are grounded in research that I tell people about, and I do them myself routinely, I’ll just mention some. I bet you’re familiar with many. I’m going to try to come up with one that you may not have heard about though. We’ll see if I can succeed at that. So, and it’s in my book. So there [are] studies behind it.

First, obviously, long exhalations, working the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, at least one breath in which the exhalation is longer than the inhalation. Immediately, people will notice an effect. [After] two or three of those in a row, you’ll notice an effect. I’ll tell you a little practice I’ve started to teach people to do. I call it the three breaths practice:

  1. Basically, in the first breath, you feel your chest as a whole.
  2. In the second breath, you feel the breathing in your chest area, while bringing to mind someone you care about. You like them, maybe you love them.
  3. And then in the third breath, again, feeling the chest as a whole as you breathe, you rest in the sense of someone who likes you. Keeping it really simple, focusing on the feelings, not the movie or the story about it all.

Those three breaths are really effective, and as you mentioned earlier with oxytocin and so forth, as soon as we start engaging, that kind of awareness of the body as we breathe, heart rate variability is improving, oxytocin flows are improving, [and] there are oxytocin receptors on the amygdala that are inhibitory in their effect. So as we have that sense of ordinary human caring, friendliness, maybe compassion, maybe a loving kindness, just ordinary human caring, that has a naturally calming and centering fact. So those are good. And the one that you may not know. Although you probably do already, I’ll just say it though, as soon as we get a sense of things as a whole, the body as a whole. So that three-breaths practice has basically three things woven into it that are effective; internal sensory awareness, through awareness of sensations of breathing, calms down verbal activity, so less stressful inner chatter.

[It] also pulls us out of the default mode network where we tend to ruminate and get lost in the future and the past. So just that sensory awareness brings us into the moment. And it’s calming and centering. And then second, the heartfeltness of that has the effects I said. And third, the sense of things as a whole, your whole body, or the whole room decreases activity in these midline neural networks that are engaged when we’re stressed, driven, or negatively ruminating and activates networks on the sides of the brain, especially right-sided for right-handed people, switch for lefties, because that side of the brain, the right hemisphere, is involved with holistic Gestalt processing. So when we get a sense of things as a whole, those networks on the right side of the brain activate, which bring us into the present and reduce the sense of self. Less sense of taking things personally, less possessiveness, less self-righteousness, and that all has a wonderfully calming and centering effect.

Chris Kresser:  Love that.

Rick Hanson:  What do you think?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I love it. I love all those practices. And I think those are, what I like about them is they’re so accessible and easy for someone to just start doing right away.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Of course, the more formal mindfulness practice is something that we would both recommend and have both done for many, many years, decades. And so, if you’re able to do that, and there [are] so many different ways to, to focus on that and learn that now. But I like offering, especially now when people are really overwhelmed and overloaded, just some quick and easy entry points in that kind of practice.

Rick Hanson:  I’ll mention one more, which is, for me, extremely useful. It’s to take a moment, literally like a few beats of maybe a breath, to tune in to the feeling of strength inside yourself. And maybe that comes from doing exercise where you just push through something physically or for me being in wilderness, off-trail, just that feeling in the body of being determined and potent and capable. Or maybe it has more of a sense of just determination, or endurance, including maybe caring for other people. However you access it, however you tune in to that embodied sense of your own strength, that’s absolutely central these days for dealing with challenges.

Because if you think about it, anxiety has to do with a mismatch between challenges and resources, perceived and actual. So you want to reduce the actual challenges and you also want to make sure you’re not overestimating them and catastrophizing. While on the other hand, which goes to the suggestion I’m making here, increase the sense of resources, including, for example, getting in touch with the fact that you’re a tough character, whoever you are, you know what I mean? You can endure. You can get through this without a bunch of macho posturing. You don’t need to be a Navy SEAL, and I’m being respectful here when I use that example, to be someone who can just endure. Right? We’ve all gotten through tough times before. We can get through this tough time, as well. And getting in touch with that is another important aspect of calming and centering.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, absolutely. There are a couple, well one thing that I have sometimes recommended to people who are going through or experiencing, like, pretty intense adversity or difficulty and they find it hard to even remember to pay attention to this stuff, if you’re really caught up in, just really stuck in it, it can be difficult to do that. So we can sometimes, we can leverage some of the new technologies that we have available to us. A lot of people have smartwatches now or they carry a smartphone with them.

Something as simple as setting a periodic reminder on the phone, or if you have a watch, it will just vibrate, can be really helpful as a, just a trigger to stop and do that three-breath practice, for example. So you could set a reminder, do the three-breath practice, and then set another reminder for 90 minutes from then. And I found that, if for people who are really feeling like they can, they just can’t find the ground to pay attention to the stuff, that can be helpful.

Rick Hanson:  That’s a really beautiful suggestion. Absolutely true. No, underneath it all. I was just reflecting earlier, Chris, kind of about something you said, that in this, there could be a really useful feeling of coming home. Coming home to ourselves. Our resting state, the equilibrium, healthy equilibrium condition in body and mind, I call it the green zone. That’s our true nature. When we’re stressed, or rattled, we tend to get disturbed from that home base. And that can be a kind of chronic inner homelessness. In effect, people who feel almost alienated from the core of their own being, or they, it’s really hard for them to kind of come home.

And yet these simple practices of feeling your body as a whole, resting in a sense of warm heartedness, at least in this moment, you’re not dying. In this moment, there’s enough air to breathe. You’re actually all right in the present, basically all right, right now. I call it “in this present.” That simple effort, which takes less than 30 seconds to do, really, in a genuine way, you can feel it. And with some practice, you could feel faster than that. It has that sense of home. Right? You come home. And I think about the quote from Suzuki Roshi, he says:

“Enlightenment is the feeling of being at home.”

Like, wow. Or the proverb that all sickness is at bottom homesickness. That’s a really deep teaching.

Why You Can Experience Happiness and Joy at a Time like This

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, that’s a powerful way of framing it because most people know what that feeling is even if they don’t live there all the time. It demystifies it. It takes it out of the realm of something unattainable to something very practical and real. And I think I want to talk about this a little bit because it’s maybe difficult for some. Some people I’ve talked to have either said this explicitly, or maybe implied it with something else that they’ve said, like, “How could I possibly be at home or relaxed or calm or centered in a time like this? How could I possibly experience happiness and joy in a time like this when so many other people are suffering and when I’m so uncertain about what the future holds?” And those are totally legitimate questions.

Rick Hanson:  You bet.

Chris Kresser:  And especially on the surface, they make a lot of sense. And yet I’ve read many accounts of people in the most horrific circumstances. People who lived in concentration camps and people who are living under, like, conditions of genocide, where their ethnic group is being racially cleansed. Who, even in the midst of those unimaginable circumstances, much worse than most of us are living through now, were still able to find peace and even happiness. That’s not a, I’m not sterilizing their experience and suggesting that they just went around in this cloud of bliss. That’s absurd. They were horrific circumstances.

But even within that, they were able to find those periods of calm and center, and they were able to pay attention to the small moments that, as you pointed out in your book, Hardwiring Happiness, just the feeling of the sun on your skin, or the taste of your favorite tea in the morning or the contact that you feel with someone skin to skin, in your household. Or really paying attention and bringing your full awareness to the small pleasures in life is what makes the difference in our day-to-day experience.

So can we talk a little bit about this as a way to close? Because I think it’s so important both for us to invite this into our lives right now, and also to be okay with that. Like, I personally, I’ve had some, I would say I’ve had more moments of happiness and bliss and appreciation and gratitude during the last four to six weeks than I did regularly before that. And in a way, it’s hard for me to admit that because of what’s happening in the world right now. But I also understand why that’s true, and for the most part, don’t feel guilty about it, because I know that my own sense of well-being and balance and centeredness and happiness is only going to serve other people. It’s not taking away anything from anybody.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah. Well, I heartily endorse what you’re saying. It’s so true. I think what you’re speaking to, including with the Viktor Frankl quote, is this profoundly important thing that’s incredibly hopeful, which is that, even while experiencing, understandably, stress, anger, anxiety, whatever it is, even while experiencing that, there can be a sense that in one’s core, in the core of one’s being through which experiences flow or from which one is aware of one’s experiences, in that core of one’s being there can be an underlying sense of peacefulness, contentment, and love, no matter how bad it is. And that’s available to us. It helps to practice it one breath at a time. There’s a saying in Tibet, “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.” One minute at a time, one synapse at a time.

We can cultivate that unshakable core deep down inside ourselves, and realize that just because the world is flashing red around us, doesn’t mean necessarily that in the core of our being, we need to go red ourselves. Just to use this as an example, as best we know from the surviving record of the Buddhist teachings, [Buddha] described at one point, his own run up to awakening, his own process. And he said that “Painful, painful feelings arose, but they did not invade my mind and remain.” That’s a crucial distinction. They arise, understandably, [but] they need not invade us. And even if they penetrate, they need not sink roots into us and remain. That’s our deep opportunity. And there are many examples of it around us. Like, I draw on my experience in rock climbing, which is in very hazardous settings. Well, some anxiety around the edges. But in the core of my being was a sense of calm coping, and actually a real scruffy enjoyment of what I was dealing with. And we can see much the same thing.

We can pursue our goals and our ambitions without getting all driven and stressed and attached to the results about it. And we can manage issues in relationships while retaining a fundamental lovingness deep down inside ourselves. We really can do that. And that makes all the difference in the world. And I think the other side of it that you’re getting at is the sense of survivor guilt in a way, to put it in a phrase.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah. That somehow, we’re not entitled or allowed to feel good ourselves while others are suffering. And here, too, the classic balance of compassion and equanimity. Where, yeah, we want to open our hearts to let the sorrows of the world land, both because for ourselves, it’s honest and it will be beneficial to ourselves, actually. Sorrow tenderizes the heart, as they say. Well, we also do it for the sake of them out of benevolence and love and Bodhisattva vow, whatever, and service to others.

Like you said at the very beginning, that felt sense of service to others [is] actually a major factor of resilience and well-being when things are at their worst. So we open our heart, while fundamentally allowing it all to wash through. I mean, what comes to mind here is what it was like for me during the last months of my father’s life where there was tremendous stress and bizarreness of all kinds in all ways. And I would debrief with my wife for like an hour as I drove home every day from being with him in the hospital and the larger things around all that, and I started to feel sort of like kelp in the sea. Like wiry strung kelp and yet completely flexible. And the waves would pass through my mind like kelp. And I would feel it passing through. And it would just pass through. And I, as the kelp, as it were, would remain. And to me, that’s the feeling from the inside out of this combination of equanimity and compassion.

Chris Kresser:  I love that. I love that analogy. Especially as a lifelong surfer, I can appreciate that one.

Rick Hanson:  Oh, yeah.

Dr. Hanson’s New Book

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. So, Rick, thank you so much for coming back. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation as I always do. And tell us a little bit more about your book that’s coming out I think this week when this podcast is being released, and then where people can learn more about it and pick up a copy.

Rick Hanson:  Well, thank you. In a way, we’ve been talking about it all the while.

Chris Kresser:  Sure, right.

Rick Hanson:  Because it’s really about deep practice, informed by the latest neuroscience. So the question is, what’s the neurological basis for everyday coping and effectiveness as well as the deepest, most durable, most reliable steadiness of mind, love, happiness, and wisdom? So that’s what the book’s about, and it basically reverse engineers people who are very, very far along in practice, to imagine plausibly what’s going on in their brains when they’re arrested in that. Like Viktor Frankl. What in the world was going on in his brain, during the Holocaust in concentration camps, that he could be like that, right? That he could retain that most fundamental of human freedom.

So we can kind of reverse engineer that and then based on that, very plausibly do practices of different kinds. The book’s extremely practical; it’s not a particularly theoretical book. It’s very much about experiential, embodied practice. We can do these practices ourselves that really, really stabilize. I’ve definitely experienced this myself, Chris, honestly. I’m kind of surprised by, as you said, how it is inside. Even though things are crazy outside, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Rick Hanson:  I don’t mean that smugly or anything. More like, wow, this stuff works. Who knew?

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, absolutely.

Rick Hanson:  My teachers told me it worked, and wow, they’re right. Yeah, it does work right. So that’s what that book is about, and it’s called Neurodharma. For me, “dharma” is an Indian, it’s a word from India. It simply means the truth of things. It’s my nod, in the direction of the world’s perennial wisdom throughout all the traditions of the world. And then the “neuro” speaks to the biological objective, physical underpinnings of our moment-to-moment consciousness. And it’s a culmination book for me. It really summarizes a lot of personal practice, a lot of the coolest neuroscience, the deepest wisdom, the deepest analysis of the mind, and then focused relentlessly in terms of personal practices. So that’s what [the] book’s about. The subtitle summarizes it: “New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness.”

Chris Kresser:  I love it and it’s such a, I think we talked about this the first time on our first interview, but I, of course, discuss a lot with my listeners and readers, the mismatch between our genes and our biology in the modern world we’re living in and the context of things like diet and sleep and environmental toxins and physical activity. And what I love about your work is that it approaches this same kind of mismatch, like how our lizard brain and our biological programming are really kind of wired to help us survive in a natural environment, but not necessarily optimally wired for thriving in [the] 21st century industrial world. Especially one that’s now characterized by a global pandemic that is full of uncertainty and loss of control.

And then if we just, in the same way that if we just kind of go with the flow with diet and as a member of industrial society, we’re almost certainly going to end up being physically sick. We’ll become overweight, we’ll develop diseases like diabetes (one in three Americans now have either pre-diabetes or diabetes), [or] we’ll get addicted to technology. That’s just, that’s no fault of will. That’s just acting out our biological programming and as it interfaces with the almost irresistible challenges of the modern world. And you’ve applied that lens to happiness and mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And in the same way we have to, it doesn’t just happen on its own, right?

Rick Hanson:  That’s right.

Chris Kresser:  We have to turn our attention to it. And there are acts that we have to, actions that we have to take. But the good news is that, in the same way that we can short circuit our tendency to seek out processed and refined foods and overcome that, we can also short circuit some of these mental and emotional processes that are kind of our default brain programming. And with the practices that you outline in your books, we can actually overcome that to create more joy and resilience and fortitude in our lives. So I love that science-based approach and also the evolutionary approach theme that goes through your work.

Rick Hanson:  Well, thank you very much, Chris. I really appreciate that. And you’re exactly right. And it kind of goes back to where we started. It’s really remarkable that the same qualities that we sort of long to develop in ourselves, we’ve all had a sense of what it was like to be you, right? When you, that time in your life, those times in your life when you felt really at your best. You could just feel it. You’re clicking on all cylinders. In the core of your being was a deep fulfillment and happiness and a generous love for others. You were really in a good zone. Deep wisdom, whatever it was, maybe it was just surfing that way.

Like I’ve never stood on a surfboard. I’ve spent a lot of time in the ocean, though, and it’s just, “Okay, there you are.” Well, we all have a feeling for that and we can even see it in other people. Maybe we’re with a certain person, our kindergarten teacher, or our meditation teacher, and we feel it in their presence. Like, wow, there’s something going on with them, let’s say that we’re drawn toward and we would like to establish increasingly in ourselves. Okay. The highest levels, those highest levels of steadiness, lovingness, connectedness, presence of mind, and so forth, are incredibly useful on the job, grinding through emails, working through an issue with a kid that you’re raising or a conflict with your partner. And in this time of madness, I just draw upon every day, these seven qualities that I’m working on myself in the process.

And if I could just put a micro plug in here, if people are interested, I taught a 10-day meditation retreat. I’ve done this a couple of times now, that moved through the seven practices, these Neurodharma practices. And that particular meditation retreat, we videotaped, [and] turned into an online program. It’s very inexpensive. And we always offer it for free to people with significant financial need, hence the Neurodharma online program. And people can check that out, as well. And it’s a great companion for the book, because you can both read it and then you can do the guided meditations and so forth from that program. And the two together are very powerful.

Chris Kresser:  Fantastic. Where can people learn more about the retreat?

Rick Hanson:  Well, thanks. It’s just all on my website, RickHanson.net, which is also chock full of freely offered resources of many kinds, including specific for this coronavirus period we’re in the middle of right now.

Chris Kresser:  Well Rick, thanks again. Always a pleasure.

Rick Hanson:  Ditto, Chris.

Chris Kresser:  We’ll have you back again sometime. Hopefully, when we’re toward the tail end of this, to talk about how we can integrate the lessons we learned during this pandemic into our, whatever our new reality is at that point.

Rick Hanson:  Yeah, definitely. Well, take good care of yourself, too.

Chris Kresser:  You, too. All right, thank you. Thanks for listening, everyone. Send in your questions at ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. As you’ve probably noted, we haven’t done a Q&A episode in a very long time, but I do use your questions to generate ideas for guests and other topics that we cover on the show. So I appreciate you listening. Stay healthy and sane. I’ll see you next time.

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