The traffic is terrible.
It's rush hour.
I'm late. I'm thinking in very short sentences that begin with F.
But I stop. Not just because my sad little Chrysler is sandwiched between aggressive Porsches. I must sculpt my mind in a positive way.
That's what Rick Hanson prescribes in his new book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice At a Time. Just as you're responsible for the sorry state of your less-than-pert derriere, you are the architect of your mind, for better or worse.
Depending on the thoughts you feed it – healthy, kale-like stalks of self-compassion, gratitude and humility versus greasy French-fry ruminations of self-criticism, worry and anger – you can transform it into something clean and beautiful, a Zen-like place of happy, breezy neuron centres that will help you navigate the stressful irritations of daily life.
Dr. Hanson calls the news an "unprecedented meeting of modern brain science and ancient contemplative practices." A neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, he's now a happiness guru who lives in California.
I know. All those blissed-out types live there. Which is a bit annoying, frankly. How hard is it to be happy basking in sunshine with coastal views as soothing as pinot noir? Why should he be telling the rest of us, who have to live in the real world of the cold, driven, industrious East, how to think?
Oops, there I go again. I'm puffed up with pre-emptive strikes of superiority – perfectly Torontonian, not so Buddha-like. Such thoughts will light up the wrong brain circuits (hello, Ms. Amygdala and your angry streak!) and prevent me from developing inner peace and an "unshakable" sense of self-worth.
I want unshakable. I do wonder whether Dr. Hanson grasps the correlation between neurotic anxiety/self-absorption and a writing career. I mean, columns might never get written – let alone books – without dread, fear and self-loathing as motivators. Was Ernest Hemingway a Buddha brain? Was our own irascible Mordecai Richler? I think not.
Dr. Hanson cites many interesting studies to show how to use your mind to change your brain. It's all about building up neural pathways in the calm-inducing parts. The brain has wondrous plasticity, he writes, pointing to studies that show that cab drivers in London, England, who have to memorize the maze of streets, have a thicker hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for visual-spatial memory.
Similarly, being mindful – being aware of how you're feeling and what you're thinking – increases activation in the left pre-frontal cortex, lifting mood and dimming the lights on Ms. Amygdala, who by all accounts is an anxiety-ridden troublemaker. Those who practise mindfulness have thicker layers in the insula, a region that supports self-awareness and empathy.
Basically, you can tame the jungle of the mind, a tangle of survival-mode reptilian layers that developed for evolutionary reasons, but which aren't necessary now that your cave is worth half a million dollars and you can buy bison in your local supermarket.
"Whether you're learning how to ski better or to be happier, it requires practice," Dr. Hanson explains over the phone. "Over time, if you go to the gym, your muscles get stronger, you're more fit, your blood pressure goes down."
Which brings us back to being stuck in an intersection, horns honking and some jerk trying to edge in front of you. How do you survive gridlock like a Buddha? Three easy steps, the happiness guru du jour explains. "Let be, let go, let in," Dr. Hanson summarizes.
And so …
Let Be. This is when you just become aware of your situation, your inner dialogue, and all your feelings. Something like: My hands are tightening on the wheel, and I'm thinking that all drivers other than me are useless, untrained and should be called "honey" in a way that does not at all suggest kindness. As in: "Honey, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
I'm also getting mad at construction workers, bureaucrats who figure it would be a good idea to fix the major arterial roads all at the same time, taxi drivers, delivery vans, and myself for not leaving earlier.
Then comes catastrophizing, which can be very creative. It's easy to go from being late to possibly getting cancer. And then ancient phobias float up, summoned by the feeling of being trapped – that time your brother locked you in a cupboard, or when you were in a bad marriage.
Let Go. Recognizing the above, and acknowledging the feelings, you now let them go. Breathe deeply. Indulge in long exhalations that may involve noise. And talk to yourself. "You silly nut. Your mind is really taking you on a ride. From traffic jams to cancer and bad marriages? Whoa, baby!"
Let In. Replace what you have released with something better. Feel grateful, Dr. Hanson says. Not in that mealy-mouthed, obligated way of I will be happy that I have two legs because some people don't. Be grateful for those things that come into your life without your bidding, like warm weather and friends. Bring in calmer thoughts, Dr. Hanson suggests. Think about your cat or your dog or making cupcakes. (Yes, he said that.) Feel compassion for yourself and the nice man in his Porsche who probably does adore his family even though he looks as if he loves only himself.
(This tip is mine.) Perfect Buddhas live on traffic-free mountaintops.