It’s very tough to find peace in crisis, but not impossible!
Psychologist Rick Hanson discusses how to strengthen our capacity for wisdom, peace, and enlightenment.
During this stressful time, it can be hard to manage the emotional challenges of sheltering in place and facing an uncertain future. We can’t rely on some of our usual ways of coping, like going out on the town with friends or getting hugs from a sibling. That means many of us are falling back on the (healthy or not-so-healthy) mental habits that we’ve been building up for years.
Psychologist and neuroscience expert Rick Hanson studies the mental resources that promote resilience, from calm and gratitude to confidence and courage. According to Hanson, the coronavirus crisis is exposing some of our psychological vulnerabilities, and reminding us how important it is to nurture our social and emotional strengths to find peace in crisis.
In his new book, Neurodharma, Hanson writes about how we can cultivate more equanimity, wisdom, and moral action using meditation and other practices. As he illustrates with neuroscience research, practicing positive states of being like these can lead to physical changes in the brain, which in turn improve our state of mind in the future.
His book and website offer a wealth of ideas for practices to cultivate a calmer, healthier way of being in the world and responding to the ups and downs of life. In the edited discussion below, I spoke to Hanson about his book and its message.
Qualities for developing resilient well-being:
Jill Suttie: In your book, you write about qualities that people can develop in themselves for greater well-being and wisdom. Can you describe these?
Rick Hanson: There are seven qualities available to all of us that are at the heart of resilient well-being:
- To steady your mind, so that you’re mindful, focused, stable, and on a solid footing.
- To warm the heart—bring compassion, kindness, and a courageous heart into your life.
- To rest in fullness, which is a poetic way to describe equanimity—a felt sense of calm strength and having enough already.
Those first three hang together—steadiness, lovingness, fullness—and we can see how useful they are in everyday life, including helping us have emotional balance. The next three also hang together:
- To feel whole and not at war with parts of yourself.
- To receive “nowness”—really living in the emergent moment, in the present, not getting lost in the past or lost in the future as we so often do.
- To open into “allness”—meaning the sense that we’re connected to everything. We know that intellectually, but to feel it and to relax our sense of self, to take things less personally, to be less identified with things, less possessive, and less prickly and reactive with other people.
Then there is the ultimate—what I call “finding timelessness,” which speaks to the ultimate ground of well-being. For instance, the Buddha pointed toward what is “unconditioned”—not subject to arising and passing away, and therefore a more reliable basis for lasting happiness and inner peace. As one example, the field of awareness is effectively unconditioned; experiences change, but awareness is stable.
These are ways of being that we develop through practice, through experiencing them and turning those experiences into lasting changes in the brain, helping us find peace in crisis. They’re accessible to all of us.
Further, we can operationalize them, just like people who do psychology research look at the factors that make someone resilient. We can observe people who seem fully self-actualized, who are very engaged in, say, social change while seeming saintly in the core of their being—people like Thich Nhat Hanh—and we can ask, “What is the basis in their brain of these wonderful ways of being?”
Neuroscience help people cultivate well-being
JS: How does understanding neuroscience help people cultivate well-being?
RH: I don’t think brain science is necessary for full awakening. It’s not necessary for ordinary psychological healing or the development of resilient well-being over time, either. Many people have obviously proved that point by developing in those ways without access to an MRI or the latest study.