I just completed a 3 day symposium here in Washington D.C., where the ideas being presented and discussed were as fascinating as the appearance of daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths only a few weeks after the worst series of snowstorms ever to hit the area. Among the more interesting of the talks I attended was one given by Dr. Rick Hanson (www.rickhanson.net) entitled: “Buddha’s Brain: Neuroscience and Mindfulness”. The talk had virtually nothing to do with Buddhism, but I learned quite a bit about the brain, and the mind’s influence on it. Brain and Mind are indeed separate things. The brain is a physical organ, while the mind (as defined in Merriam-Webster) is:
a : the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons b : the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism c : the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism.
Among the more interesting concepts presented was that our physical brains can actually be re-shaped by the experiences and thoughts we have (this has been clinically verified in numerous studies). Unfortunately, for evolutionary reasons our brains have been “wired” to be far more sensitive to negative developments than to positive ones.
Early humans were at very high risk of being killed by a variety of sources ranging from predators to poisonous plants. In order to ensure the survival of the species through the passing on of genes, evolution wound up “favoring” individuals who were highly wary. In the most primitive (“reptilian”) part of the brain, the part that governs the “fight, freeze, or flight” response, 70% of cells are focused on tracking potentially negative external circumstances (risk), with only 30% focused on the positive (opportunity). This bias towards the negative is confirmed by studies demonstrating that individuals will work much harder to avoid loss than to achieve gain. This underlying bias is maladaptive in the 21st century, particularly as it relates to career and relationships.
As a life coach, psychotherapist, couples counselor and career coach I see far too much unhappiness caused by the fear of taking a risk (changing jobs or partners). Understanding that we are wired to favor risk avoidance explains why this is so, but does not justify it. In order to develop, we must have a wide variety of experiences. From these experiences come the growing wisdom that makes future success and happiness more likely. Inevitably, among these experiences will be mistaken. Learning to forgive yourself for your mistakes, and seeing that they can be of value, will change self-recrimination into contemplation. Out of this contemplation can come wisdom because wisdom consists not only of knowing the right things to do, but also the wrong ones. It is this fact that makes the title of today’s post so true.