On the other hand, we recognize scientifically that the experiences of a human being—how contented you are, how fulfilled you feel in your relationships, what happens when another person mistreats you—are all based on what the body is doing, especially our neurobiology.
So, if we’re interested in disengaging from dread, fear, and helplessness and engaging in a feeling of calm strength and openheartedness, we should be interested in how the brain is making those experiences happen. And we should be interested in how we can intervene in the brain skillfully, with precision and some granularity, to help ourselves and others have beneficial experiences more often and learn from them more effectively. When you understand how the hardware works, it turbocharges your practice.
The book is full of examples where identifying underlying neural “circuitry” that underpins beneficial traits—such as present-moment awareness or grateful contentment—helps to establish them in ourselves. You can deliberately stimulate those circuits, and, as you start having those experiences, you can also help your brain heighten the conversion of those experiences into lasting changes of neural structure and function. So that’s really useful.
The second reason is that it’s motivating to bring neuroscience into account. You appreciate that your brain is being changed by your practices and also by your bad habits. A lot of people who have not typically been drawn to personal growth get really interested in it when they realize that it’s “techie”; there’s an engineering aspect here. Practice actually changes the physicality of your brain.
It can also sharpen your insight into your moment-to-moment experience if you understand it’s based on very fast ebbs and flows of neurochemical activity. Increasingly, I can watch the show in the theater of my own consciousness with an understanding of what’s actually prompting the experiences I’m having.
Whether it’s a surge of anger or whether it’s a wave of calm, whether it’s some kind of a warm connection or whether there’s some feeling of being dismissed or disrespected by somebody else, I can understand what’s happening in my brain that’s generating that experience. It really helps you come home to yourself when you realize that your experience is a body-mind process.
Self-acceptance and self-improvement
JS: Isn’t there a conflict between the idea of self-acceptance and the desire to be a better, more effective person in the world? How do you reconcile those two seemingly opposing goals?
RH: Yeah, that’s a classic question. But basically all the great teachers say to do both. We are innately wakeful, loving beings deep down in our core, but most people, me included, are not like that all the time. We’re not continuously living from our innate goodness. We must make efforts over time to clear away the crud so we can come home to who we always were.
We need to gradually cultivate the slow accumulation of practice on the path and then we may experience sudden awakenings that create qualitative shifts. We need to engage willful effort in our mind as well as be able to have a profound serene acceptance underneath it all. They’re not at odds with each other; both are necessary, and each one supports the other.
What we can develop each day ourselves to be able to find peace?
JS: How is your book relevant to our current moment, as we encounter the changes in our lives around the pandemic?
RH: If you think about people who are models to us, who have really developed themselves, what you see in them is great fortitude and commitment to others; they are incredibly strong and brave. For me, the book is a manual of deep resilience; it really emphasizes what we can develop each day ourselves.
My opinion about this time is that many of us have been propped up by various activities and settings and interactions and the experiences that we had as a result. And that was fine, as long as the music was playing.