The Causes of Suffering
Three fundamental strategies have evolved to help us pass on our genes: creating separations, stabilizing systems, and approaching opportunities while avoiding threats. Although these strategies are very effective for survival, they also make you suffer.
The effort to maintain separations is at odds with the myriad ways you're actually connected with the world and dependent upon it. As a result, you may feel subtly isolated, alienated, overwhelmed, or as if you're in a struggle with the world.
When the systems within your body, mind, and relationships become unstable, your brain produces uncomfortable signals of threat. Since everything keeps changing, these signals keep coming.
Your brain colors your experiences with a feeling tone--pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral--so you'll approach what's pleasant, avoid what's unpleasant, and move on from what's neutral. In particular, we evolved to pay great attention to unpleasant experiences. This negativity bias overlooks good news, highlights bad news, and creates anxiety and pessimism.
The brain has a wonderful capacity to simulate experiences, but there's a price: the simulator pulls you out of the moment, plus it sets you chasing pleasures that aren't that great and resisting pains that are exaggerated or not even real.
Compassion for yourself helps reduce your suffering.
Explicit memories are conscious recollections of specific events or other information. Implicit memories are residues of past experiences that largely remain below awareness but powerfully shape the inner landscape and atmosphere of your mind. Unfortunately, the bias of the brain tilts implicit memories in a negative direction, even when most of your experiences are actually positive. You should create, preserve, and increase beneficial implicit memories, and prevent, eliminate, or decrease harmful ones.
Turn positive facts into positive experiences. Good things keep happening all around us, but much of the time we don't notice them; even when we do, we often hardly feel them. Someone is nice to you, you see an admirable quality in yourself, a flower is blooming, you finish a difficult project--and it all just rolls by. Instead, actively look for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the faces of children, the smell of an orange, a memory from a happy vacation, a minor success at work, and so on. Whatever positive facts you find, bring a mindful awareness to them--open up to them and let them affect you. It's like sitting down to a banquet: don't just look at it--dig in!
Savor the experience. It's delicious! Make it last by staying with it for 5, 10, even 20 seconds; don't let your attention skitter off to something else. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory. Focus on your emotions and body sensations, since these are the essence of implicit memory. Let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible.
Imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, like the sun's warmth into a T-shirt, water into a sponge, or a jewel placed in a treasure chest in your heart. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.
Take small risks and do things that reason tells you are fine but worry wants you to avoid--such as being more open about your true feelings, asking directly for love, or reaching higher in your career. When the results turn out to be good--as they most likely will--take them in and slowly but surely clear out those old fears.
Cooling the Fires
The most powerful way to use the mind-body connection to improve your physical and mental health is through guiding your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Every time you calm the ANS through stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), you tilt your body, brain, and mind increasingly toward inner peace and well-being. You can activate the PNS in many ways, including relaxation, big exhalations, touching the lips, mindfulness of the body, imagery, balancing your heartbeat, and meditation.
Deliberately feeling safer helps control the hardwired tendency to look for and overreact to threats. Feel safer by relaxing, using imagery, connecting with others, being mindful of fear itself, evoking inner protectors, being realistic, and increasing your sense of secure attachment. Find refuge in whatever is a sanctuary and refueling station for you. Potential refuges include people, activities, places, and intangible things like reason, a sense of your innermost being, or truth.
It's important both to cool the causes of suffering and to warm up the causes of happiness--such as your intentions.
The neuroaxis has two hubs: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the amygdala. The ACC-based network manages top-down, deliberate, centralized, reasoned motivation, while the amygdala-based network handles bottom-up, reactive, distributed, passionate motivation. These two networks are woven together. For example, the "logical" ACC-based network guides the flow of your feelings, and the "emotional" amygdala-based network shapes your values and worldview. The two networks--metaphorically the head and the heart--can support each other, be awkwardly out of sync, or struggle in outright conflict. Ideally, your intentions will be aligned with each other at all levels of the neuroaxis: that's when they have the most power.
Intentions are a form of desire. Desire per se is not the root of suffering; craving is. The key is to have wholesome intentions without being attached to their results.
Every day, try to have compassion for five kinds of people: someone you're grateful to (a "benefactor"), a loved one or friend, a neutral person, someone who is difficult for you--and yourself. For example, sometimes I'll look at a stranger on the street (a neutral person), get a quick sense of him or her, and then access a sense of compassion.
Every morning, establish the intention to be kind and loving that day. Imagine the good feelings that will come from treating people with kindness; take in these feelings as rewards that will naturally draw your mind and brain toward kindness. Throughout the day, deliberately and actively bring kindness into your actions, your speech, and most of all, your thoughts. Try to encourage more themes of kindness in the mini-movies running in the background of your mind, in the simulator.
How to Be Empathic
Empathy involves simulating the actions, feelings, and thoughts of another person. Simulate her actions through imagining what it would feel like in your body to do them. Simulate her feelings through tuning into your own emotions and watching her face and eyes closely. Keep paying attention to the other person; be with him. Appoint a little guardian in your mind that keeps watching the continuity of your attentiveness.
Notice the other person's movements, stance, gestures, and actions.
Actively imagine what the other person could be thinking and wanting. Imagine what could be going on beneath the surface, and what might be pulling in different directions. Ask yourself questions, such as What might he be feeling deep down? What could be most important to him? What might he want from me? Be respectful, and don't jump to conclusions: stay in "don't know" mind.
As appropriate, check with the other person to see if you're on the right track.
After considering your aims in relationships, what it means to stay in bounds, and how to interact harmoniously with others, establish your personal code of relationship virtues. Living by this code unilaterally--no matter what others do--increases your independence and self-control in relationships, feels good in its own right, puts you on the moral high ground, and is your best-odds strategy for evoking good behavior from others.
Taming the Wolf of Hate
Cultivate Positive Emotions
Practice Noncontention: Don't argue unless you have to. Inside your own mind, try not to get swirled along by the mind-streams of other people.
Be Careful about Attributing Intentions: Most of the time you are just a bit player in other people's dramas; they are not targeting you in particular.
Investigate the Triggers
Put Things in Perspective
Practice Generosity: Use things that aggravate you as a way to practice generosity. Consider letting people have what they took: their victory, their bit of money or time, their one-upping. Be generous with forbearance and patience.
Regard Ill Will as an Affliction: Approach your own ill will as an affliction upon yourself so that you'll be motivated to drop it.
Study Ill Will
Settle into Awareness
Don't Teach Lessons in Anger
Have Faith in Justice
Supports for Everyday Mindfulness
When you can, do just one thing at a time.
Focus on your breath while doing daily activities.
Relax into a feeling of calm presence with other people.
Use routine events--such as the phone ringing, going to the bathroom, or drinking water--as "temple bells" to return you to a sense of centeredness.
At meals, take a moment to reflect on where your food came from.
Simplify your life; give up lesser pleasures for greater ones.
Stay Awake and Alert
Sit in an erect posture.
By taking several deep breaths, you increase oxygen saturation in your blood and thus rev up your brain.
The more enjoyable and intense your feelings are, the greater the dopamine release--and the more concentrated your attention. In other words, whether you are going deep into meditative contemplation or just trying to keep your eyes open in an afternoon meeting, happiness can really help.
Quiet the Mind
Be Aware of the Body as a Whole: Besides its benefits for quieting the verbal mind, whole body awareness supports singleness of mind.
Hush the Verbal Centers: Send a gentle instruction to the verbal centers, something along the lines of Hush, now, it's time to relax and be quiet. There's nothing important to talk about right now. You'll have plenty of time to talk later, throughout the rest of the day. Alternately, you might occupy your brain's language centers with other verbal activities, such as repeating a favorite saying, mantra, or prayer in the back of your mind.
Relaxing the Self
From a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion. In the brain, every manifestation of self is impermanent. The self is continually constructed, deconstructed, and constructed again. It is not so much that we have a self, it's that we do self-ing. As Buckminster Fuller famously said, "I seem to be a verb."
The self is a collection of real representations of an unreal being--like a story about a unicorn.