warming fire

Turning Positive States to Lasting Traits

The earliest teachings of the Buddha encourage us to turn our minds toward thoughts of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These teachings also invite us to generate thoughts focused on the Buddha’s admirable qualities. And, they urge us to rest our attention, from time to time, in thoughts focused on our own acts of generosity, kindness, and good will. The teachings insist that if we do so, we will discover lasting benefits in health and social harmony. We’ll create lasting positive traits that support own happiness and the happiness of others.

Equally, the earliest teachings admonish us to turn away from bitter, resentful, harshly critical, or otherwise harmful thoughts.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
and trouble will follow you
as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart. ~The Buddha

Of course, there are many reasons to turn away from nursing negative thoughts. Harsh and aggressive thoughts undermine our own mental and emotional health and can lead to recriminating and divisive speech and aggressive or violent actions. And these together can and do corrode positive relationships and lead to all kinds of other poor results in life including an earlier than normal death due to social isolation.

Develop your inner sense of connection

On the other hand, thoughts of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy are pro-relationship, pro-social, and pro-health. These thoughts are by definition about developing and fortifying our inner and outer positive sense of connection with ourselves and with others.

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an pure mind
and happiness will follow you
as your shadow, unshakable. ~The Buddha

In the last forty years there has been a ton of research showing that if we want to get more than passing spiritual and relational benefits from the positive things we think, say, and do, we need to actively practice imaginatively enhancing our positive thoughts, emotions, and actions.

For good or bad, the Brain is changing constantly

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a Buddhist meditation teacher and psychotherapist. And, he has developed a simple yet powerful practice based on the research I just mentioned to help us sculpt healthy positive states of mind into long lasting changes in brain structure. In other words, Doctor Hanson’s practice helps us replace negative unskillful mind-tendencies with wholesome skillful tendencies for lasting change.

Here are Rick Hanson’s recommendations for how to turn positive states of mind into long lasting positive traits of thought and behavior. I’ll use Hanson’s fire metaphor and an experience of sympathetic joy to show how this works.

To avoid all harm, to cultivate good, and to purify the mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha. -The Dhammapada

Imagine that based on personal reflection Jill has come to the conclusion that her mind tends towards resentment. That is, whenever Jill sees someone succeed she finds or invents reasons that say that successful people are underserving or no more deserving than she is. It just bugs Jill to see others succeed, so she feels bad and sometimes even wretched when others succeed. Notably, Jill would like to change this trait. But how can she?

First, she learns that according to the Buddha’s teaching, generating a sense of joy in the place of resentment is identified as an effective antidote to resentment. So, Jill sets the intention to try to brighten her mind with feelings of joy and happiness on behalf of the person succeeding—in sports, academics, business, the arts, or what have you.

Bask in feelings of joy

In Hanson’s approach to this practice he says we can think of the initial feeling of sympathetic joy as the first spark in lighting a fire. He likens the next phase of the practice to adding logs to the fire.

Here Jill does her best to make the feeling of joy last as she works to intensify the joy and send it to every fiber of her body. Next, she warms herself by the fire—she intentionally basks in the warming good feelings of joy.

What she’s aiming to do here is to have the pleasant experience of joy  last long enough, say 5 to 20 seconds, and have it become intense enough to actually begin to change brain structure so that a new behavioral trait emerges in her life, one the celebrates the successes of others and also diminishes her suffering in life.

Negativity Bias

This practice is important because negative experiences affect us far more deeply and quickly than do positive experiences. So it’s difficult to replace negative traits and habits with positive ones. (This is known as negativity bias and I’ve written about this in previous posts. Here: sweepingheartzen.org/negativity-bias/  and here: sweepingheartzen.org/goodness_negativity_bias/ ) But we can do it if we work at it.

Here is a link to an exceptionally clear and useful talk by Rick Hanson on the practice of creating  positive traits: youtube.com/watch?v=IflQtD_4BEU

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I hope you have a wonderful week!