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.
Linda Kohanov is the author of the new book, The Five Roles of a Master Herder: A revolutionary model for socially intelligent leadership. Linda is also the author of the bestseller The Tao of Equus. She speaks and teaches internationally. She established Eponaquest Worldwide to explore the healing potential of working with horses and offer programs on everything from emotional and social intelligence, leadership, stress reduction, and parenting to consensus building and mindfulness.
Robert Wright is the author of the new book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Robert is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, and The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the widely respected Bloggingheads.tv and has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Republic. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course Buddhism and Modern Psychology.
In our culture of “get more, have more, be more,” is there any place for “good enough is good enough”? Today’s guest offers an inspiring alternative to nonstop striving, self-improvement, and self-criticism. Roger Housden is author of the new book, Dropping the Struggle: Seven Ways to Love the Life You Have. He is the author of numerous other books, including Ten Poems to Change Your Life and Ten Poems to Say Goodbye. He offers writing workshops, both live and online, with an emphasis on self-discovery and exploration.
Donald Altman is the author of Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness practices for letting go of what’s blocking your fulfillment and transformation, as well as several other books about mindfulness. He is a practicing psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk. An award-winning writer and an expert on mindful eating, he teaches in the neurobiology program at Portland State University.
Ellen Langer, Ph.D., is the author of the book Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, which attempts to answer the question: If we could turn back the clock psychologically, could we also turn it back physically? Dr. Langer, a social psychologist, has been described as the “mother of mindfulness” and has written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, and decision-making. he is the author of eleven books and more than two hundred research articles written for general and academic readers on mindfulness for over 35 years.
Sarahjoy Marsh is the author of the new book Hunger Hope and Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food. Sarahjoy is a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, and she has an MA in transpersonal counseling and art therapy. Committed to bridging yoga, psychotherapy, and social justice, Marsh founded the DAYA Foundation, a nonprofit yoga therapy center known for its integrated approach to yoga, mindfulness, and recovery.
Ethan Nichtern is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and the author of the new book, The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Do you feel at home right now? Or do you sense a hovering anxiety or uncertainty, an underlying unease that makes you feel just a bit uncomfortable, a bit distracted and disconnected from those around you?
This Pathways show investigates the journey each of us takes to find where we belong.