Positive neuroplasticity and the practice of taking in the good


An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”  He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Whether or not it’s your first time hearing this story, it serves as an important reminder of the power we have over our experiences and emotions.

Ar every moment, we can make a decision of which wolf we want to feed. When we can recognize the negative emotions occurring within us, we don’t have to attach to them or identify with them.

We can choose to nourish the wolf of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. This is what the practice of taking in the good train us to do.

Some words on positive neuroplasticity

Brain studies show that the structure of the brain changes with our experiences. Whatever we repeatedly sense and feel and want and think is slowly sculpting our neural structure. All mental activity – sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes – is based on underlying neural activity. Intense, prolonged or repeated mental activity – especially if it is conscious – will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure. There is a saying in neuroscience that “neurons that fire together wire together”. Day after day our mind is shaping our brain. This is what scientists call experience-dependant neuroplasticity.

Our brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon: so if we keep resting our mind on self-criticism, worries, blaming others, hurts and stress, our brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, anger, sadness, guilt. On the other hand, if we practice resting our mind on good events and conditions, and our good intentions and qualities, then over time our brain will have strength and resilience hardwired into it, a more positive mood and a sense of worth.

Self-reflection: Take some time now to ask yourself, looking back over the past week, where has your mind been mainly resting?

In his book Hardwiring Happiness, the American psychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson describes the mind as a garden. When we practice being mindful, we are simply looking at the garden with its weeds and flowers without judging or changing anything. This first step is already very useful, but we can go further. We can decrease the negative by pulling the weeds in the garden of the mind, and increase the positive by planting more flowers (stop feeding the bad wolf and feed the good wolf).

He invites us to take a three steps approach to our experiences: let be, let go, let in.

For example, when something difficult or uncomfortable happens, we can start with being with the experience, observe it and accept it for what it is even if it’s painful (recognise and allow).

Second, when it feels right – it could be a matter of seconds with a familiar worry or a matter of months or years with the loss of the loved one – we can begin letting go of whatever is negative. For example, relaxing the body to reduce tension.

Third, again when it feels right, after we have released some or all of what was negative, we can replace it with something positive. For example, you can remember what it’s like to be with someone who appreciates you and stay with that experience for a 10-20 seconds. This step is important because it allows us to grow new neural circuits in our brain.

Experience-dependent neuroplasticity shows that each person has the power to change the structure of their brain for the better.

The negativity bias and the practice of taking in the good

The nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, solutions to survival problems faced by early humans  continue to shape our experiences and guide our actions. In order to survive as a species, our ancestors had to pay particular attention to threats, dangers, and be able to remember them well and become even more sensitive to them. Consequently, the brain evolved a built-in negativity bias, so it is always on the look-out for potential dangers or losses, it perceives negative stimuli more rapidly and easily than positive stimuli and painful or upsetting experiences overpower pleasurable or comforting ones.

The brain is like “Velcro for the negative but like Teflon for the positive: positive experiences flow through our brains like water through a sieve, they are momentarily pleasant but are not able to change the neural structure in our brain, which we need in order to build inner strengths such as happiness and resilience.

So the best way to compensate for the negativity bias and build our inner strengths is to regularly take in the good, as described by the psychologist and meditation Rick Hanson. The practice of taking in the good is a systematic approach that allows us to deliberately internalise our positive experiences into implicit memory, so that they can start to have an impact on neural structure in our brain.

The first step is to have a positive experience:

It involves noticing a positive experience that is already present or creating one for yourself. For example, you could think about things for which you feel grateful, bring to mind a friend, recognise an accomplishment, or appreciate the little things that make you happy throughout your day. It is important to pay attention on how it makes you feel in your body, so it is more than positive thinking. The practice of mindfulness can help us notice and enjoy all the possibilities to feel contented that every moment has to offer. As we learn to become more present to each moment, and to pay attention to what’s here inside us and around us, we can be touched by all the moments of joy and love that happen in our lives: a corner of blue sky on a winter day, the song of birds in the morning, the clear laughter of a child, the kindness of a stranger…

Even during difficult times, we can still learn to stop and notice these little moments of joy and happiness, and to make space for them, in the midst of all our fears and worries.

The second step is to enrich it, which means stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds, open to the feelings in it, sense it in your body, let it fill you, enjoy it, encourage it to be more intense if you can. Recognise how it nourishes you and makes a difference in your life.

The third step is absorb it, set the intention for this experience to sink into you, sense how it really lands in your mind. You might use visualisation for this, for example placing it like a jewel into your heart. Know that it is becoming part of you.

The idea is to make this a habit, as the brain is like a muscle, and gets stronger the more you exercise it. By taking in the good regularly throughout the day, it will become automatic, and you will be weaving good experiences into your brain.

How does it work in practice:

  • Appreciate the little things in your life: your friends, your family, your pets, a good meal in good company, the kindness of a by-passer….
  • Make time every day to remember and savour positive experiences, for example when you wake up in the morning or before going to sleep
  • Make sure you enjoy positive experiences as they happen, noticing them, noticing how they feel in your body, making them last

 Reference: Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness

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