What follows is a transcript for the podcast Consciousness - Dr. Rick Hanson - Neuroscience.
Topics within the interview include:
- How science and ancient wisdom unlock mysteries of consciousness
- Learning from Buddhist explorations of consciousness
- The fascinating neuroscience of peak experiences
- Why we need both top-down and bottom-up processing for serenity in a changing world
Dr. Dan Stickler: Welcome back to Collective Insights Podcast. I'm Dr. Dan Stickler, your host for the day. I have the pleasure of having an outstanding human being by the name of Rick Hanson. He's a psychologist, senior fellow of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times bestselling author. He has lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, taught in meditation centers worldwide.
His latest book, Neurodharma, explores how neuroscience and ancient wisdom can be combined to achieve seven practices of the highest happiness. Today, we're going to be really diving into his latest book, Neurodharma. Many of you, I'm sure, have read some of his previous books. This one was fascinating to me, because it talked to me about some of the stages that I've been going through lately. So welcome, Dr. Hanson. It's good to have you here.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, thank you, Dan. That was a very kind and generous introduction. I appreciate it. I'll try to live up to it.
Dr. Dan Stickler: All right. That sounds good. Most of your book centers around more of the Buddhist teachings, but do you incorporate other teachings in that?
How Science and Ancient Wisdom Unlock Mysteries of Consciousness
Dr. Rick Hanson: Great question. What interested me in that book was the process of really, actually reaching the highest possibilities for human potential. And drawing on the wisdom from around the world for the common practices, the common steps in those various roots up the, let's call it, mountain of awakening. Awakening both as a process and a destination. I drew most on the tradition that I know best, which is early Buddhism, which is highly pragmatic, not metaphysical.
It's very practical and direct, especially in a good translation. And thus, has a lot of harmony with modern science, with its empiricism and pragmatism as well. I've certainly respect for other traditions, but the one that I drew on myself, in terms of reverse engineering. What could possibly be going on in the brain as people move up that mountain? That particular one was Buddhism.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, that statement makes me think of a question I want to ask you. It's maybe a question you can't answer or prefer not to, but really when it comes to consciousness, what's your feeling on the origin?
I'm not saying from a scientific term necessarily, but do you see consciousness as rising from the organic brain or as an outside source?
Dr. Rick Hanson: Fundamental question, isn't it, right there? The hard question.
I worked for a mathematician for a year doing probabilistic risk analyses of the odds of things like nuclear power plants melting down. I was the guy in the trenches back in 1977, doing Fortran back in the day. One thing about him, his name was Tan Kaplan, he's probably still alive, a wonderful fellow. He said, "A real mathematician is someone who wakes up in the morning and asks what is a number, actually?" The fundamentals, the basics. Where I start is with our fellow animals, with nervous systems.
The squirrels in the backyard, the goldfish in the pond. I have a chimpanzee, lizard, even a spider. It seems clear certainly, that at the level of a goldfish, a lizard, a squirrel and a monkey, a cat and a dog, they're having experiences. So just in simple terms, there is hearing, there is seeing, there is pain, there is pleasure. Simpler than in humans, but certainly the basics. There's awareness, there's lack of awareness. At a minimum, it seems clear that the processes of experiencing and in a field of awareness, are embedded in natural processes at a minimum.
At a minimum, which for me, is actually awe-inspiring and moves me right into gratitude. Thank you, 600 million years of evolution of a nervous system. Thank you all our forebearers, who suffered and died, so that tiny, incremental advantages could be gradually hardwired into DNA for us to enjoy, including in this conversation today. Then we're at the fundamental question you're getting at. Is there more than mind and matter, as we understand it within the natural frame of the expanding big bang universe?
Is there more to it than entirely natural processes? Are there supernatural factors, former past lives, discarnate entities, precognition? Are there transcendental factors, some possible field of unconditionality, in which conditioned expansion of the universe occurs? In addition to that unconditionality, which is what the Buddha pointed to. He used the language of negation, timelessness, deathless, and so forth. It's pretty bare, pretty stripped down. Not much of an explicit "God" in that.
Additionally, as many people have pointed to, could there also be attributes of some kind of awareness, transpersonal, infinite, cosmic consciousness woven into the fabric of reality, as well as perhaps a benevolence, a love, if you will? That's the question. My own personal answer to it, having tried to frame that question in a clear way is yes. In other words, I do experience and believe that there is a transcendental ground that minimally has qualities of unconditionality, timelessness, and boundlessness.
And more and more, partly because I hope it's true, and partly because I'm experiencing that it's true. There are aspects or attributes of awareness and some kind of fundamental kindness, lovingness embedded in the fabric of everything. Then the process for people in general, is to be increasingly open to that possibility. And to feel increasingly permeable to it, porous, if you will. More like gauze than a steel curtain, in terms of the boundaries between you and That.
We can explore that, I guess, just to finish. For me, a way that is entirely prepared to stop at the secular boundary and leave it at that. Okay. Mind and matter alone, give us tremendous opportunities. Also, if it could be true that there's more than just that, that's quite extraordinary, isn't it? How can we be respectful of those possibilities and open to them, and maybe even increasingly lived by them?
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. I had a conversation with Beau Lotto, who I'm not sure if you know who he is, but he studies do we see reality, similar strain of Donald Hoffman's work. It was interesting in my conversations with him in looking at this, is his consciousness and epiphenomenon of the wet matter of the brain. Probably four years ago, I was strictly the scientist. I had to have proof and all of this stuff. During my work over the last four years, I realized that we don't know anything.
That was one of the things that Beau Lotto mentioned. He has a tattoo on his wrist, the inside of his wrist, that says I know nothing. And looking at everything from that standpoint, then after the deep dives into quantum study, I realized that we can't explain much of anything. Then what we do explain, can be unexplained as well. But when you look at Buddhism and I've felt this over time, that Buddhism has a bit of a nihilistic approach to it.
I started studying more of Confucianism and the Neo-Confucianism. I'm not sure if you have any thoughts on that. But with the blending of Confucianism and Buddhism into Neo, I found it resonated really well with me and understanding the Lean. The essence of the person or the thing, or just throughout all of the biosphere, that there is a life force and a consciousness that overrides all of that.
Dr. Rick Hanson: So much in what you're saying. First, I would just say myself, not as a professional philosopher or scientist of consciousness. I do think from the sidelines, that there's a lot of trouble that happens when we start getting into and only human models, at which point we've left the embeddedness of our own experiencing. There is hearing, there is seeing, there is thinking, there is wanting, there is hating, there is loving that's occurring.
I think where we will have our greatest clarity emerging over the next century or two, because I think it'll take about that long for a thoroughgoing scientifically grounded model of awareness and phenomenology. How is it that the meet makes the mind the hard problem? Let's start with simple things. Is a squirrel hearing? Is a squirrel feeling? Is a squirrel seeing? What is the minimum necessary basis for that, and perhaps sufficient basis for that within an entirely secular frame that enables it?
We know a lot actually already. I think that's where we're going to make the most progress. If we step out of for me, empty arguments at the level of Buddha's consciousness, and who is the consciousness and who is the consciousness that's disputing the existence of consciousness? Bring it down to the rat, bring it down to the lizard, the cat, the dog, and then build from there. Okay. That's part one. Part two, you said about Buddhism. Nihilism is a funny word. Could you just say what you mean by that one?
Integrating Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness With Western Science
Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, I like that you asked for clarification on that because when I think of nihilism, my thought processing is along the lines of I think the existence of self.
That the self is disappearing with death. Even though it transitions on the self is lost at that point or is merged in some way.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Wow. I was prepared for a whole bunch of hardcore science about synapses and neurons and we're just it's cool, Dan. I'm really good with this.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Oh, thanks.
Dr. Rick Hanson: We're like boom, fellow practitioners around the coolest questions. What? Okay. If you'll forgive me, a quick little primer about basic Buddhist thinking. Okay, great. Buddhism obviously began with the Buddha historically 2,500 years ago. It's evolved tremendously. There are many Buddhists in effect, but there's a common heart to them. I think of it as the trunk and the roots of the tree, which is then spread with many branches.
First, one of the fundamental observations of the Buddha, is completely consistent with the scientific view that most, if not all, phenomena have the nature of being made of parts that are connected and changing. Okay. Certainly true for our experiences and may not be exactly true for the speed of light. Is it actually changing and so forth? But most things are made of parts in the material universe, are made of parts that are connected and changing.
All right. Therefore, they are in the technical term, empty of self-determined essence or solidity. They occur, they exist. The category error would be to infer from the empty nature of phenomena, that phenomena don't exist. They exist emptily, as process, as interdependently arising process. Okay, including that very durable and sticky feeling that I really am an I, and I've written about it.
I made the point that the presumed conventional I or me. That entity that we tend to think is "inside the other person," typically in the head, is presumed to exist because it is unified, enduring and independent. But to summarize a ton of stuff, if you look into your experience, you don't find that the sense of self for its various aspects is in fact, unified, enduring, and independent. It made up of many parts that are changing and are connected to wider processes that make its existingness.
Okay, great. Same in the brain, the neural substrates of self-related representations, processes, and so forth are also widely distributed throughout the whole brain, not unified. They're widely dynamic, continually changing these various activations that underlie the sense of self. They're not enduring and they're not independent. They occur and change, based on various factors. Okay. The presumed self, we can think about it like we can think about a unicorn, but we don't think a unicorn exists.
In much the same way, the presumed self in my view, is like a unicorn. That said, there are persons. You're a person, I'm a person, persons have rights and responsibilities. It's very helpful to clarify the distinction between personing as a process and selfing. Now, that's all within the natural frame. That's a great way into taking life less personally, which is really helpful. Paradoxically, I'm a long time psychotherapist so I have those roots as well.
It's actually through the internalization of healthy social supplies in early childhood, and then repairing what was lacking in childhood, in adulthood. It's through the internalization paradoxically, of being appreciated, included, liked, loved, cherished. Narcissistic supplies in the technical language of clinical psychology. Paradoxically, it's through actually internalizing these and filling up the hole in the heart that we gradually become less self-centered, less egoic, less conceited, less arrogant usually.
We have to internalize it, so that's pretty wild. Now, the whole thing about is there not an eternal soul, which was the view of the Buddhist time that he critiqued? He argued against some independent, eternal soul. Okay. Then people can maybe disagree about that. Certainly, many people in the Christian tradition would disagree with that. But the way I myself look at it, is that reincarnation, rebirth let's call it, maybe.
I think there's actually quite a surprising amount of evidence for it, even though how in the world you explain it within science? That's a supernatural phenomenon. It's super, it's beyond nature. Do you have any kind of rebirth of any qualities mysteriously, like what? You know what I mean?
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah.
Dr. Rick Hanson: But beyond that, and in a way that I find really quite beautiful and reliable, is to feel what you recognize. The felt recognition that each of us, to use a familiar analogy, is like a wave in the ocean. We have our personing for a time. There is a particular wave with its own seaweed and foam. You're a person, I'm a person, there are persons. To feel more and more deeply, every day a little bit more maybe, that your waveness, your personness is the result of thousands of factors flowing through you.
You are a local expression of 10,000 causes extending all the way back to the big bang. Well, that'll take you into a lot of gratitude and eventually, your wave will subside. Eddies, I use the metaphor as you know, from the book of eddies in a stream. All eddies disperse eventually, but the streaming of reality is, of course, ongoing. We return to the sea. All right. All along our nature was water. To feel that increasingly is available to us. You don't need anything supernatural or metaphysical for it.
Honestly, it makes it really okay for me to contemplate my own death. I've had people dear to me, my parents, some friends die. It's no small thing for a particular wave to subside, a particular person to go. There's sorrow, there's consequences sometimes, and all the rest of that. We were always water and we're returning to the sea. Thich Nhat Hanh is super good at this. Bless his memory, as you may know his work.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. Yeah, thank you for that. That helps quite a bit in my understanding of that Buddhist mindset that they have. I loved Buddhism. My first non-Christian exploration was Buddhism.
I practiced a lot of that through the years. It's helped me to move along this spectrum that I've been journeying, but I do want to get back into some of the science stuff, as you say.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Reel it in, Dan.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah, I know. I don't really want to.
Dr. Rick Hanson: By the way, I got to say, I started out in my practice in early Buddhism, and it's become increasingly gobsmacked by and informed by this so-called Mahayana, the later developments, and Tibetan Chinese really informed by Taoism. My ears perked right up when you said that, and then flowing into Japan and into the West. You may know the book China Root by David Hinton. If not, I highly recommend it to you and your listeners.
I think you'll just go, "Wow, yep." Beautiful book about how Zen. I used to think Zen was Buddhism with a splash of Taoism. No. Zen is Taoism with a little splash of Buddhism. Then you have Ch'an and Ch'an masters, and so forth. Wonderful stuff, just beautiful. Just resting in the hinge of reality of emptiness somethingness. Absence presence continuously. That is the ultimate ground of awe. Resting in that is the ultimate expression of full awakening. Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: I love that. You talk about peak experiences in your book. This is an area that we work with our clients on really identifying peak experiences and having those as often as possible. Can you expound on peak experiences?
Exploring the Neuroscience of Peak Experiences
Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, okay. We were joking before we started just about, at least in my case, being wildly task driven and being the source of those tasks. I quoted the saying from the psychedelic era, "You ate it, you ride it." Okay. Well, let's say that we're going to approach this for simplicity, inside the natural frame initially, at least. Okay. What's going on in the body while people are having, let's say, classic, non-dual or also termed self-transcendent experiences, which have these two major attributes?
In which the sense of being a contracted, separated, beleaguered entity yourself, really falls away. Boom, while simultaneously, reality as a whole shines forth in radiant perfection, often with a sense of just timelessness, peacefulness, no problem, et cetera. Those experiences can be somewhat informed, shaped, enhanced, let's say by different cultural traditions. People have those experiences around the world. They're widely reported. Surveying people, probably at least one to three people have had some kind of experience like that.
William James certainly talked about it, Maslow and others. What in the world's going on in the brain when people are having that and how can we use that? I'm going to talk about methods distinct from psychedelics. Psychedelics, lots of research these days. I've used psychedelics quite a bit, especially when I was younger. There are people who are really specialists about that and I'll defer to them in a way so forth. One of the central things that seems to happen when a person is having the whole enchilada, the full fireworks experience.
Is that arguably, a normal, perceptual rhythm in us that moves back and forth between an egocentric perspective that's self-referential into an allocentric perspective? These are terms that are used in the science of this. In which there's a sense of things as a whole impersonally, without privileging me, without privileging oneself in the sense of things as a whole. We need both of those perspectives to function. They seem to have evolved because they helped our human hominid and primate, and mammalian ancestors and so forth survive.
It seems that what happens when people drop into being everything, it's that conventional, egocentric, perceptual structuring of our experience drops out. How to get it to drop out, it's not entirely clear. One notion is that there's some basic switches inside the thalamus, this sensory switchboard in the brain. Technically, as you know, there're two thalami, one on either side, but call it a thalamus. It could well be that switch that moves us back and forth normally, between an egocentric and allocentric frame, gets stuck in allocentrism.
All right. What are some of the factors that promote that? Well, that sense of the impersonal or transpersonal totality of everything, Gestalt of everything, is also supported by networks in the right hemisphere that give us a Gestalt perspective. And disengage activity in the midline of the cortex that's very involved in self-referential processing. Divided from the world, either by engaging in tasks that were taken care of with frontline activation in the midline cortex. Or we're daydreaming or ruminating, in which there's a strong sense of self and I, in both cases, based in the default mode network.
Those midline cortices drop out, in terms of their activation. A lateral typically right-sided for right-handed people, because that's the hemisphere of the brain that gives this holistic, Gestalt processing occurs. Also, mental time travel stops. When we reduce midline activation, we are right in the present and rested in especially, the alerting aspect of attention, in which things are happening but we're not conceptualizing about them. We're not trying to [inaudible 00:25:53].
Dr. Dan Stickler: Is that timelessness?
Dr. Rick Hanson: Timelessness.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah. Neurologically, we're starting to form plausible. Neuroscience is a baby science, I think. There's a lot of gee whiz about brain science. We have to be careful about claiming authority. If you happen to have access to an MRI, we have to be careful about that, but still, we know more than nothing. Why not use what we know? Just quickly summarize, we have these switches in the thalamus. Now, they're locked onto allocentrism, things as a whole. We have related circuitry potentially in the right hemisphere of the brain, and a quieting of dualistic, separated processing supported by midline cortices.
We're also rested in these attentional systems that really, really, really bring us into the present. By the way, those circuits, those little switches in the thalamus are regulated by GABA major neurochemical. That's very involved with the experiences of tranquility. So often, there's a sense of great tranquility for the person. One thing that promotes the shift into these lateral networks in the right hemisphere and coming into the present moment is surprise.
So often, sometimes there's a surprise that initiates these self-transcendent experiences, the frog croaks. Famous episodes in Zen, the bottom falls out of the bucket. The evening star, Venus, the planet appears. The Zen master shouts suddenly there's a surprise, boom. We open into everything and then we get stuck there. Typically, also with tremendous feelings of wellbeing. I'm not trying to be mechanistically reductionistic here, but trying to honor actually the embodiedness, the embeddedness of these experiences.
Which then go, because I'm a practical person. I'm really interested in practice. How can we cultivate these factors? Neurological, plausible factors that are worth doing in their own right, that could make us more accident prone, more prone to grace, more open to grace of these boom, full fireworks experiences. Along the way, have in the Tibetan saying, moments of awakening many times a day. With each moment being like a pinhole in the dark shroud that obscures reality as it is.
But moment after moment, pinhole after pinhole, that shroud starts becoming gauzier, and lacier, and more permeable. We start being more aware of it in an ongoing daily way of the light, as it were, that was always already there. To summarize, training in a wider view. Training in taking things as a whole. Being in nature is very supportive of this. You were talking earlier about Costa Rica and things of that sort. I was recently in nature in the Sierra, Nevada and California, deeply meaningful.
Appreciating Native wisdom, Indigenous first people wisdom about our embeddedness in the wider world, in the allness of it all. Training and tranquility. Training and taking life less personally. Relaxing the contracted death grip of the ordinary ego eye. Good, that. And also, supporting one's self in one's basic needs. When you don't feel like your basic needs for safety, satisfaction and connection are being met enough in the present. If you don't experience it, maybe they actually are, but you don't believe it or feel it.
Experiencing it, when you don't feel that your needs are met enough, the brain does what it knows how to do, which is to keep that monkey alive by having a separated, stressed me against the world attitude, which is contra the self-transcendent experiences. There are cases where people were in agonizing pain or great difficulty, and suddenly transitioned into the self-transcendent mode. But very often, if you're running for your life, it's hard to just bliss out into oneness with reality. Okay, then last, last, last, now I've moved beyond the natural frame.
Even if the underlying causes and conditions of these breakthrough experiences with fireworks and the frequent pinpricks on a daily basis, let's say. Even if the basis for that, let's say, is entirely physical, material within the ordinary reality. Still, that which is revealed potentially about what might be supernatural or transcendental, is not any less what it is. If the pulling back of the curtains, of the windows and doors of perception. Aldous Huxley talked about that, is achieved through natural, physical, material means. A really important point.
Dr. Dan Stickler: When you brought up two of my favorite topics, neuroscience and psychedelics there, so I have to dive into something that you talk about in the book.
You just mentioned briefly here is the medial processing. The midline processing versus the lateral. Specifically, also talking about the default mode network.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: What I have experienced and what I have studied about is that many of the psychedelics, LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, they have a propensity to turn off the lateral prefrontal cortex to allow bottom-up processing.
There's also a lot of studies on the ketamine, where it's shaking up of the default mode network. It's like the river flowing and you just shake it up, and it starts another set of flows. What are your thoughts on these subjects?
Dr. Rick Hanson: I think those both seem like plausible operationalizations of some of the major factors that could lead to what we see. It's a little bit like we see a good result from an intervention. The intervention, A, leads to the good result. C, we're not very clear about the intermediate process, B, whereby it does that. That could be actually said about many widely prescribed, routinely prescribed psychotropic medications like antidepressants.
It's still not entirely clear at all how in the world that the stuff they're doing observably at the synaptic level, translates to improved mood and less vulnerability to catastrophic depression. It doesn't mean they don't work. We're learning how they work. All right, that's that. What I take from this is that A, yes, let's explore psychedelic interventions. Let's do it carefully. Let's be thoughtful about, first of all, do no harm. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic.
Along with that, what can we do to prepare people for those trips so they have the most impact? Then especially afterward, help integration to occur, which involves lasting processes of neuroplastic change in the brain of learning. Many of us have had fantastic peak experiences. And as Jack Kornfield put it at the tale of his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. We come back and there are a lot of people, I'm sure you know them, who've had fantastic awakenings.
A week later, a year later honestly, they're still as much of a jerk as ever, or as unhappy as ever, or as harmful to other people as ever, or as addicted to alcohol as ever. That's especially what interests me, how do we produce lasting beneficial change in the brain through positive neuroplasticity, essentially? As someone who and my state of mind is really pretty cool. I'm a little thoughtful about. We need to respect these medicines, plant medicines and things like ketamine.
It's serious. A lot of people are not going to be doing psychedelic assisted psychotherapy, which is very resource intensive as you know and typically expensive as hack in most cases. What are the ordinary practices that we can do in daily life? Right off the top, you named two things that let's just talk about how to engage plausibly mental practices that would reduce top-down type control, associated with the upper, outer regions of the prefrontal cortex, so there's more space for bottom-up processing.
How could we train in that in everyday life? Similarly, how can we decrease default mode activity so that we're not so sucked into it and shake it up?
Dr. Dan Stickler: Can you quickly define bottom-up versus top-down for the listeners?
Explaining the Difference Between Between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Processing
Dr. Rick Hanson: Sure. Great. I hope I'm not speaking over long. You're asking such fantastic questions. I feel part of my job is clear and acknowledge distinctions. Okay, great. Well, I think of this a lot around motivation and it's a useful example, top-down versus bottom-up.
Top-down says to me, "Rick, you're getting old. You got to lift weights more. Get out there, quit screwing around, do it." It's like an inner boss.
Dr. Dan Stickler: An inner critic, as some people call it.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Well, there could be the critic, but even if you separate out the critic, there can be a guide. There can be a director, and there can be a tracker of when you're getting off the trail, in addition to the potential of that, effectively negative inner critic. Okay, so that's top-down. We're all familiar with top-down. There's a place for it. We teach our children greater top-down self-regulation. We talk to ourselves, we tell ourselves, "Don't do it."
There you are with your partner, I've been married 40 years or something else, and you want to say something. Don't do it, or really do it. You got to go brush your teeth or really do you know something? Okay. That's top-down. Top-down control is effortful and it exposes us to what's called willpower fatigue and we're all probably familiar with that. Bottom-up motivation is a matter of tuning more into somatic, emotional, more visceral systems in the brain that are more ancient, in terms of the evolution of the neuraxis.
Over 600 million years from the bottom-up, in which we essentially get a sense of what it would be like to fulfill this motivation. What would it be like to exercise? What are the rewards of what that would be like? What would it feel like? What would be good about it? Also, what would it be like to be that person who easily exercises and lifts weights, because he's got a machine in the garage he ought to use? In effect, we can give over to those more bottom-up motivations that rise like a current or a wellspring, to carry us along.
In effect, we exercise. It's the paradox. We autonomously exercise our will to surrender to ways of being, that naturally move us down paths we want to follow. That mode of motivation from the bottom-up is not vulnerable to willpower fatigue. It feels rewarding along the way. It's whole body, it's whole being. It's not like the inner boss is directing you and the rest of you wants to rebel. That would be an example of top-down, bottom-up. Both are necessary.
I would say in 1,000 years of Western philosophy, somewhat science has tended to privilege top-down control, and religion has tended to privilege top-down control. You see versions of that in psychoanalysis, in which we have the top-down super ego and ego needing to regulate the bottom-up, primal id, which in a religious framework, could be considered to be saturated with sin and bad, and nasty and so forth. On the other hand, I think there are people who really could use some more executive function.
They could use a little more top-down regulation, including impulses that harm other people. So both are needed, the brain works together. But I think for a lot of people, they've been trained fairly in Western cultures certainly, developing cultures in executive function, top-down regulation and maybe elsewhere around the world. They really could use more of a sense of getting in touch with their depths, and becoming more comfortable with them and more trusting in them.
Trusting in those steps, rather than feeling like you've got to white knuckle your way through life because otherwise, you're going to make some terrible mistake.
Dr. Dan Stickler: In the book you talked, this is a question I had to get to. I haven't asked any of the questions that I had listed here.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Because I'm blathering on too much, that's why.
Dr. Dan Stickler: No, no, because I was just interested in the free flow of the questions that I personally had actually.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Hopefully, it'll be valuable to listeners.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah.
The Brain and Awareness
Dr. Dan Stickler: But you talk about the monkey mind in the book. One of the things that has been part of my journey here, has been recognizing the monkey mind and that inner voice. And recognizing it as this is my creation and I'm looking at it almost like a third person where I'm seeing my awareness.
But then I have an awareness of my awareness, and that's a strange feeling when you get to that point. And you talk a little bit about that in the later stages of this progression that you have in the book.
Yeah. Well, first off, Dan, just respect. I didn't realize coming into this, that you had so much personal depth of practice and development, and just factually recognizing what's the case. You're speaking to a progression that many have named, which I think is useful to think of in three steps that loosely blur into each other. Step one, focused attention. For example, being able to rest your attention in the sensations of breathing one breath after another, 10 breaths in a row, 100 breaths in a row.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Wandering a little bit and then coming right back, focused attention. Over time, and there are certain practices that go right to it, you move into open awareness. In which there's not such an immersion in some particular object of attention that you're becoming concentrated in for various purposes. But there's a resting in a sense of spaciousness and openness, and being with the continually changing contents in the field of awareness. All right. Open awareness, which then increasingly starts to become abiding as awareness.
The contents of awareness tend to get quieter. The body's becoming more tranquil. The verbal chatter gets quieter, and quieter and softer. There you are, more and more, in this just resting in awareness. In which from time to time, there can be a recognition, "Oh, this is resting and awareness." Now, of course, as soon as you have that thought, you're not so much resting in awareness. Then there's some skillfulness in releasing that thought. And factors like not knowing, allowing not knowing, allowing don't know mind, perhaps a sense of mystery and so forth.
Okay. Then a very interesting thing can start to happen. As doing this increasingly drops out, let's say during a meditative state, we can't function this way in everyday life all the time. I want to be clear about that. But in training here, our ordinary functioning of doing can become increasingly grounded and saturated with being and the feeling of being. 00:43:36 So here you are, you're resting, abiding as awareness, you're starting to get closer and closer to the ground state of your own brain. The idling rate of your own brain. There's less and less deliberate doing.
Deliberate doing starts dropping out and you start having more and more of direct experiencing of the truth of things, that we are continually being made. This moment of experience is continuously being made by countless factors and processes that we don't own and cannot control. There can be a shift increasingly as you abide in this deep way of identity. 00:44:23 Away from the conventional, constructed sense of being a Rick or a Dan. And instead, identity starts to be more and more blurred and edgeless with the sense of allness manifesting this, this moment of experience.
This moment of physicality, this locally, which is really quite a profound process that it seems that you're deeply engaged with.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. It was frustrating for my wife, who's our CEO, because I just got to the point at one point, I was just like, "What's the point of working? Money doesn't mean anything to me." It was a rough stage to work through and I'm not completely through it yet.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Wow. Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: I love the aspects of your book that really resonated with me and feel like I'm not the only person out there experiencing this, and it's broken or something.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Oh, that's beautiful. If I could just offer, I rock climb less, but still some. I'm proud to say I climbed 5.9 at 69.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Wow, nice.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Reasonably, 5.9 in the US system's pretty good. I looked at people who are better than me in that particular way. How can I learn from them and how can I reverse engineer their qualities? How can I be inspired? How can I have confidence that the path is worth walking through their example? What we see in the territory of our conversation, is that the people who've gone really far along, the saints and sages throughout history and different traditions and many, many people that are not famous at all, who do they almost always, increasingly become?
Kind, loving, strong, resilient, dedicated to others, engaged in the world. Along the way, sometimes related to experiences that have been had, there need to be periods of integration and sorting things out, and letting things shake out. But eventually, they don't wander off into the wilderness staring at their naval, just self-indulgently happy with themselves. They're still engaged, they're still functioning. I guess I think sometimes of a line from T.S. Eliot in his religious poem, Ash Wednesday, which can be understood in that frame or in a secular frame.
I love it. His line, "Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still." Right there, we have the classic Buddhist and found in other traditions, integration of compassion and equanimity. We swing sometimes between those two and the rhythms of our days, more one, more the other. I'm pretty swung into compassion these days, because I'm involved in the development of a global compassion coalition, that's just in its first months or so of getting started.
Other times, it's important for people to swing more into equanimity where they're just deeply at peace way, way, way inside themselves. Then over time, the two together. So fear not, you will keep paying the bills and all the rest of that. Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Well, if I had my way, I'd stay on here for two hours.
Dr. Rick Hanson: I would too.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Dive into your knowledge base. I've really enjoyed this, but we're going to have to cut out here. I would love to have you back on to follow-up on this and go a little bit further with the journey that we've begun.
Dr. Rick Hanson: It would be a delight. I say that as someone who's trying to do less and less in the realm of work. I would very much welcome this. I would welcome the chance to also talk about practices. Actual steps people can take grounded in science, that really, plausibly move us along the path of awakening. Broadly stated, while being very clear that these qualities, these inner strengths.
In the book, as you know, I summarize as seven universal features of awakening. Steadiness of mind, lovingness of heart, fullness and equanimity, a sense of wholeness, resting in the present allness, opening into everything allness, with a respect for timelessness, respect for mystery. These qualities are incredibly useful in the stressful trenches of daily life. It's not just for self-indulgent, privileged people wandering up their path.
It's for regular people, all of us in everyday life, to develop more and more of an unshakeable core of resilient wellbeing, that is opening more and more into the upper reaches of human potential. I'd love to talk with you more about all of that.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Great. For the listeners out there, Rick outlines these steps in Neurodharma so be sure to get a copy. Just something that's interested you or like me, you're going through some existential work and need some support there. Thank you for taking the time to be with us. For me, I don't see this as work. This was just a fun conversation.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Super-duper for me. Yeah.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Yeah. This is just being for me.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Yeah. That's great.
Dr. Dan Stickler: Thank you.
Dr. Rick Hanson: Thank you, Dan.
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