327: How to Change Your Brain So Your Mind (and thus you!) Can Thrive
Monday April 18, 2022

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“Although your true nature may be hidden momentarily by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist. Knowing this can be a great comfort.”—Rick Hanson, PhD with Richard Mendius, MD, Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom

The mind’s default is dialed to ‘survive’, not to thrive. However, the wonderful ‘gift’ that our brain has within it is the toolbox full of tools (i.e. capabilities) to learn the skills to change the dial to ‘thrive’.

There is a distinction, however slight between the brain and the mind, and while the two are often conflated, think of the brain as the physical entity within your skull and the mind, the conceptual idea maker that thinks due to the capabilities of the brain.

With that said, the title refers to the truth of what will change your life for the better. The author of Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist shares along with the contributor, doctor in neurology Richard Mendius, “If I know one thing for sure, it’s that you can do small things inside your mind that will lead to big changes in your brain and your experience of living . . . you really can nudge your whole being in a better direction every day. When you change your brain, you change your life.”

The secret that is often unknown unless we are taught, learn or observe it, is that we have to change the dial from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’ and it is a muscle we have to keep toned. The question I have been asking for over two decades is How. And while I have been grateful to find books over the past twelve years, sharing so many of them and what I have here on TSLL, it was reading Buddha’s Brain that provided the science that help me make sense of why my brain encourages my mind to default in certain ways that in hindsight are not helpful. (I will list the other previous books and their post/episodes below.)

1.Practice the three fundamentals of Buddha’s teachings: Virtue, Mindfulness and Wisdom

Since our brain and how it functions is the reason we suffer, yet we can change the brain, then we can also cure the suffering. Hanson summarizes what Siddartha who over two thousand years ago, at the time not yet called Buddha, discovered as he trained his mind “thus his brain” while understanding the causes of suffering, also discovered the “path to freedom from suffering”.

Let’s take a look at what each of these three look like in everyday life:

  • Virtue: “regulating your actions, words and thoughts to create benefits rather than harm yourself or others”
  • Mindfulness: “the skillful use of attention to both your inner and outer worlds”
  • Wisdom: “applied common sense . . . first, come to understand what hurts and what helps . . . then based on this understanding, let go of those things that hurt and strengthen those that help . . . as a result, over time you’ll feel more connected with everything, more serene about how all things change and end, and more able to meet pleasure and pain without grasping after the one and struggling with the other”

2. Prolong feelings of happiness

Did you know that as “you become a happier person, the left front region of your brain becomes more active”? Yep. And this is a very good thing because the left frontal region of your brain is where your skills for communication and thinking abstractly as well as understanding abstraction are rooted. When we consciously prolong and hold ourselves in moments of happiness, in other words, savor them deeply, we are actually rewiring our brain, and “when neurons fire together, they wire together”. When we do this regularly, savoring what is good, what makes us happy, we are gradually, yet steadily and significantly changing our brains, and thus ‘how we think’ for the better.

3. You don’t need more resources, you already have what you need

The key to changing our brains is not to have more money, more time or well, anything outside of ourselves, which is very good news. The key is awareness, knowledge of how to change the brain, and the will and restraint to do so. So, look back to #2, that is a great place to start – savor the moments of happiness.

4. Understand why we ‘suffer’ when we step away from what we know

From ending a relationship and moving on, to changing jobs and thus the colleagues you surround yourselves with, the first year at college away from your family after having lived with them your entire life thus far, leaving your home to travel and experiencing home sickness or even the Paris Syndrome, your mind defaults to ‘surviving’ and is not concerning itself with what is best for you to thrive.

Within our brain, the Lizard brain as it is often called, when we separate from what we have done, when we choose to be independent and start something new or go somewhere new, our brain will push back and “produce painful signals of disturbance and see your choice as a threat”. Thus the struggle with the mind, and the emotions, for a temporary period of time. Often, people don’t understand such feelings are temporary and retreat to what they’ve known which is what the Lizard brain and brain set to the default of ‘survive’ wants you to do, but that is not thriving.

5. Understand how past negative experiences trigger the mind in the present more powerfully than positive memories

“The brain is drawn to bad news.”

Velcro versus Teflon.

Since our brain is set to default to survive, “the hippocampus makes sure [negative events are] stored carefully for future reference”, our negative experiences tend to have more of an impact than positive ones unless we live consciously and understand why the brain does this.

I found this section of the book incredibly powerful because once I understood why the brain kept pulling me back to worry, doubt, anger, sorrow, shame, any negative feeling to prevent me from stretching, changing, growing, progressing, even hoping, I could then take the wheel and pause its previously unstoppable progression toward an unhelpful state of mind. Keep the following quote in mind if you too have a mind that you might right now think cannot be controlled (the good news, and why I am writing this post, is that it can):

“[The brain] highlights past losses and failures, it downplays present abilities, and it exaggerates future obstacles. Consequently, the mind continually tends to render unfair verdicts about a person’s character, conduct and possibilities. The weight of those judgments can really wear you down.”

6. Stop living in simulations

Simulations are moments that the brain plays, or replays over and over again. Whether you are rehashing an argument or situation that didn’t go as you had hoped, or thinking ahead to the future and imagining every possible outcome, every single one is a simulation and it pulls you away from the present moment. Hanson calls simulations ‘mini-movies’, and shares, “Mini-movies keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams.”

Essentially when we let ourselves get lost and wander about in simulations we are putting ourselves into an invisible cage, and as Hanson rightly reminds, trapping ourselves in a life that is smaller than the one you could actually have.

7. Practice regular self-compassion

We often know how to give compassion or extend compassion to others. It is important to note that compassion is not pity. Compassion instead involves extending “warmth, concern and good wishes”. In 2016 I wrote a detailed episode (#122) sharing how to extend compassion to yourself, and why it is important. When you practice self-compassion you are creating a refuge, an island of calm as author Dr. Kristin Neff describes it for you to just be – stepping away from all negative and positive energy that you may have running in your mind, letting go of self-doubt and extending kindness to yourself.

When we practice regular self-compassion, we are exercising self-awareness as we give ourselves what we need, and we are in that moment, in a state of true contentment because no matter what is swirling around us – in the outside world or within our mind, we are stepping back and finding stillness, observing, but not engaging, and providing care to ourselves so that we can respond well when we are ready, rather than reacting.

8. Stop throwing the Second Dart

Oh, oh, oh! This was a big aha moment for me.

Since we’re talking about a Second Dart, there must be a First Dart, and there is. As Dr. Hanson explains, the First Dart is out of our control – a negative or unwanted experience happens, but it is HOW we react to the First Dart that creates a Second Dart, and we can prevent the latter from ever being thrown in the first place by becoming aware of ourselves and choosing to respond rather than react.

The reason Second Darts need to cease being thrown is because they are often more hurtful, painful and destructive. And here’s the best news of all, Second Darts are entirely avoidable and never unavoidable. In other words, we need to stop hurting ourselves in such a way that is entirely avoidable to do so.

Screen Shot 2022-04-23 at 4.47.46 AM

An example of what a Second Dart looks like: Your boss or colleague gives you the cold shoulder at work or doesn’t consider your idea, or even invite you to share (first dart); immediately, in your mind, you rush to doubt yourself, become angry for being ignored and immediately assume their treatment must be all about something you did/lack/didn’t do/are not enough of/etc. (second dart). The second dart lacks any evidence and takes in no context for any other extenuating circumstances, and causing unnecessary suffering.

Dr. Hanson warns that sadly, some second darts can be thrown that are a result of a positive first dart that we, refuse to see as positive because we are doubtful and distrustful of ourselves. Example: you receive a genuine compliment and immediately question (in your mind) how it could be possible that someone sees something good, or you are fearful they will see through you. Again, you’ve caused yourself unnecessary suffering and you are creating neural connections that actually decrease positive growth in the mind.

Long story short, refrain from throwing a Second Dart, ever, ever, ever.

9. Consciously create a life of more moments and experiences to savor every day

Our brain has a negativity bias as discussed above. Understand this and you understand the vital importance of savoring, savoring, savoring. I often repeat in triplet this verb and it’s not on accident. When we savor, don’t just do it once, hold yourself in the moment, create an imprint of this awesome moment in your mind. Your brain is changing for the better, and thus your mind thinks better and your life changes for the better.

Hanson shares ideas that I have a feeling will look quite familiar to readers and listeners of TSLL blog and the corresponding podcast. (1) look around you, throughout your day and your life for what you are grateful for, look for the good news in other words and so much of the good news is seemingly small and insignificant, but it is not insignificant at all – it is fuel to focus on to improve your life – beautiful scents, steady steps toward a goal, your favorite weather forecast, a healthy body!, clean water; (2) savor the experience for longer than you may have thought necessary – hold it in your awareness, drink it up – the longer you do, the “more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory”; (3) recall the journey of challenges you overcame to arrive where you are and are grateful to be – this rewires the brain, deepens savoring and adds to our list of what we are grateful for; and (4) take in all of the good sensations from past good memories and current ones – the warmth of the sun, the peace you felt when you heard the good news, the first time you laid eyes on [insert destination/person/outcome].

10. Understand the process to rewiring the brain so that the mind can thrive

Begin the journey of mind transformation by keeping this truth in mind (pun not intended): it will take regular practice, but your mind will eventually change for the better. It will get rather difficult in the middle of the journey before it gets easier, so stick with it.

Hanson delineates the four stages we move through (the goal being stage 4) to reach a state of full awareness and awakening of the mind, in other words, strengthening our mind’s ability to thrive.

  • Stage One: “you’re caught in a second-dart reaction and you don’t even know it”
  • Stage Two: “you realize you’ve been hijacked and must engage with the second-dart, but cannot help it”
  • Stage Three: “some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don’t act it out”
  • Stage Four: “the reaction doesn’t even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue”

Hanson explains that we often get stuck in Stage Two, thinking it is impossible to move forward into stage three. Why? Often because we have the incorrect idea that the life around us must change to suit us, but that is faulty thinking. Remember, we live in awareness and how we respond to what we cannot control will determine our ability to either simply survive or thrive. It’s important to state this again (as much for myself as for readers/listeners), don’t throw the second-dart. Simply don’t do it, and you’re already well on your way to Stage Three. The goal for growth is to aim for Stage Three and Four, but if you are living consciously in awareness and practicing the above steps shared, you’ll get there and your life will be be full of more ‘happiness, love and wisdom’.

“Over time, through training and shaping your mind and brain, you can even change what arises, increasing what’s positive and decreasing what’s negative. In the meantime, you can rest in and be nourished by a growing sense of the peace and clarity in your true nature.”

There is far more worth understanding and exploring in this book, Buddha’s Brain. Today I wanted to introduce you to the fundamental science behind why our brains are not our friend if we don’t know how they work and just let it lead us where it will. We cannot let that happen or we won’t find true contentment.

I think it is also important to point out, by focusing on the good, celebrating the awesome moments in life, Hanson explains, “[It] is not about putting a happy shiny face on everything, nor is it about turning away from the hard things in life. It’s about nourishing your well-being, contentment, and peace inside that are refuges you can always come from and return to.”

When we understand how our mind is initially designed, but at the same time understand what it is capable of, we set ourselves free to no longer be stuck in a cage we have the key to unlock.

Books, Blog Posts and Podcast Episodes previous shared about the Mind

Petit Plaisir

Maisie Dobbs mystery series

~The Simple Sophisticate, episode #327

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9 thoughts on “327: How to Change Your Brain So Your Mind (and thus you!) Can Thrive

  1. I’m leaving a premature comment just to say how much I’ve been anxiously awaiting the podcast to accompany this book!!
    I can’t wait to tune in! Thank you Shannon

  2. I’m posting again, now that I have listened to the podcast. Shannon, I’m simply blown away by this book and the key points that you’ve extracted and so graciously shared with us! Such wisdom to ponder and put into practice. The way that Hanson delineates how the brain and the mind should be considered separately, rather than as one entity, made SO much sense and provided me with the awareness of what it takes to make the long lasting changes. I was nudged to buy this book when you first introduced it in last month’s a cuppa, but then decided to wait until the podcast before purchasing it. The wait is over! Book is on the way 😊

    1. Dani, So tickled the book’s contents spoke to you. It is as though the contents give us the keys to the house we have always owned but didn’t know how to unlock to design to live our most desirable lives. I actually go back to this book quite often and have taken it with me when I travel to refer to just to give myself reminds as I am still habituating all of the teachings. It will take time, but I am grateful for this understanding of the brain and how it works so that my mind won’t fall prey to the unhelpful defaults. Thank you for tuning in to this episode and for your enthusiasm! You made me smile. 🙂

  3. Excellent post Shannon.You have unpacked succinctly the essence of this book and I need to order it. I have read Steven Johnson’s ‘Mind wide open’. He says that knowing about our brain’s mechanics can powerfully widen our own self awareness. Many of us think that the brain and the mind are one and the same. Understanding the difference means that one can be able to change one’s approach to life to better live.😊

    1. So true Kameela and thank you for your succinct and clear explanation of the difference between the brain and the mind and the book recommendation. This book was an aha book for me for sure. 🙂

  4. I came across Buddha’s Brain back when it was first published, was quite intrigued, and…somehow it never made it to my library. Thank you so much, Shannon, for the ‘re-introduction’. The science of the brain and the mind has always intrigued me. From your podcast and the excerpt I read online, I know this book will be devoured first, and then become a well-thumbed resource manual. My copy arrives today and I can’t wait to dive in. Merci bien!!💚

    1. Rona, Happy to share it for a re-introduction. I too think I have heard of this book recommended in the past but only recently when I heard about it again did I take action and order it myself. Happy that I did. I think you will enjoy it. 🙂

      1. And welcome home! It’s always so exhilarating to travel. And the return home is always that sigh of contentment and release, that “bien dans sa peau” feeling of quiet joy that our nests provide. And Norman is flying his tail-feathers high, so happy that you and he are home together once again. Can’t wait to see and read more stories about your travels! 😊XX

        1. So true Rona! So true! There is a settling in with even more peace and groundedness when one returns home to a life intentionally cultivated when we return from our trips that while we adored add strength to our everyday lives. Thank you for sharing the thought. I could not agree more. 🙂

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