Dennis Tirch is the author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic, and Fear. Dr. Tirch is one of the foremost experts on Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) in the United States. Dr. Tirch’s work with compassion is firmly grounded in an extensive history of work in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Buddhist Psychology.
Everyone prefers happiness over suffering, but it can be difficult to steer our emotions and moods toward a happier state. According to evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Paul Gilbert, we are burdened with a big challenge he refers to as a “tricky brain!”
Why tricky? In his captivating book, “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert explains that our brains have been shaped by evolution, which is not the most intelligent designer. We could have a better brain, if evolution were able to reorganize it (like rebuilding a software program from scratch), but evolution doesn’t work that way—it can only build newer brain functions on top of old, patching and extending things over time.
It makes sense that over millions of years, our brains have become rather unwieldy and unstable. The “old brain” continues reacting to jarring stimuli as if it were life-and-death, as if a saber tooth tiger were about to attack you from behind, instead of the reality: you lost our keys and are about to be late for an important meeting.
It’s like we have two brains – old brain and new brain. The old brain runs emotions, which guide our motives (social and otherwise) to help us get what we need and depend on for survival. Old brain mechanisms, on the other hand, evolved functions that direct the body to deal with threats, take shelter, find food, seek out a sexual partner, etc.
In the last million years, our brains have evolved in profound ways. With a growing neocortex, we became able to think, reason, and plan, enabling us to cooperate and communicate. However, this new brain isn’t foolproof or even 100% advantageous. Because of these abilities for thought and self-awareness, we become burdened with habits of ruminating, comparing, self-criticism and judgment—with emotional by-products like anxiety, vindictiveness or depression. Unlike other animals, humans can anticipate the possibility of starving to death or obsess on a fearful experience. As they say in 12-step meeting, “stinkin thinkin” can get us stuck in a loop until we find a way to intervene.
The two brains are linked and intertwined. The old brain can hijack the new brain, where all of its thinking and planning becomes enlisted by the survival fears of the old brain. Our thinking can become linked or looped into a stream of threat-fueled anxiety, anger, or worry.
As always, 80% of the solution lies in understanding the problem. We can have a better relationship with ourselves when we stop judging ourselves and develop compassion for ourselves, accepting the fact that our brains are replete with conflicting ideas, emotions, and desires. Tricky!
In “Mindful Compassion,” Dr. Gilbert teaches how to break self-destructive thinking cycles, reorganize the mind, and keep it on track for positive and constructive action. (My podcast talk with him is definitely worth a listen.)
For the sake of self-compassion—which, as Dr. Gilbert explains, is a healing balm for our suffering—it’s important to remember that your brain’s conflictedness is not your fault! Likewise, we are not responsible for the family system or society we were born into, so let’s have compassion for ourselves around that too! The great news is that we can learn to rewire our tricky brain by combining the skill of mindfulness and the power of self-compassion.
Thupten Jinpa, PhD, is the author of the new book A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness caught on in the West when we began to understand the everyday, personal benefits it brought us. Now the highly acclaimed thought leader and longtime English translator of His Holiness the Dalai Lama talks about how compassion can bring us even more.
Thubten Chodron is author of the new book, Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Living with Wisdom and Compassion. She is an American-born Buddhist nun, has studied and practiced Buddhism in India and Nepal since 1975. Chodron travels worldwide, teaching and leading meditation retreats, and is known for her clear and practical explanations of the Buddha’s teachings. She is the author of numerous books, including Buddhism for Beginners and Open Heart, Clear Mind. She is the founder of the Sravasti Abbey, in Newport, WA, which fulfills her long-held vision to share the Buddha’s teachings, incorporating the best elements of Western society, including gender equality and using technology to spread the Dharma.
Donald Altman is author of the new book, The Joy Compass: 8 ways to find lasting happiness, gratitude & optimism in the present moment. Donald is a practicing psychotherapist, an award-winning writer, former Buddhist monk, the vice president of The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME.org), and an adjunct professor at Portland State University and Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. The author of One-Minute Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Code, and other books, Altman leads workshops around the country on mindful living and mindful eating. He lives in Portland, OR.