I was watching a video in which Rick Hansen, neuropsychologist and author of the books Buddha’s Brain and One Good Thing, explained to me that it wasn’t my fault that I seemed to focus much more on negative thoughts than positive ones.
It turns out that the ancient part of our brains has a negativity bias, just like the antelopes in the African savannah. When your life depends upon being focused and aware of danger, you tend to remember scary stuff. You store it so that if anything comes up that feels threatening, you can immediately access that big group of neurons and get yourself ready to run.
Positive experiences are not as important for our survival, so when we experience a moment of feeling good, we aren’t programmed to store this. It is much more important to remember how to run really fast than it is to be distracted by the memory of that beautiful sunset when a voracious lion is bearing down on us.
Rick has been studying this stuff for years. He is one of a group of neuropsychologists, psychiatrists, scientists, and other ists who are looking at how our brains work and how our minds can change our brains. Many of them are also trained in and practice mindfulness meditation, so they are able to observe their own minds as well as learn from the rats in the lab. Much more effective for practical application as it turns out.
Rick was explaining what we can do to reprogram this negativity bias. As I listened to him I had one of those moments when everything around me became filled with light, and I knew what I was learning could change my life. I had read about the importance of positive thinking for years — but here was something so simple and so practical that I could do it, that I could make it fun, that I could use within the next few minutes to experience the power of it.
As usual, Mombasa was curled up on my desk, watching the video with me. I paused it and turned to her.
“Did you hear what Rick just said, Mombasa? I can’t believe how simple he makes it seem. You know what this reminds me of – how Poohbear (the Feline Zen Master in Choosing To Be) taught me about letting go of clinging to negative thoughts. He used the same metaphor, only in reverse. He told me to stop throwing logs on the fire when I was having negative memories, to stop reinforcing them. Now Rick Hansen is telling me to throw those logs onto the fire to make it blaze brighter when I am having a positive experience. This is brilliant!”
Mombasa curled her huge furry tail around her and smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you to see what humans have learned about how the brain works since your days with Poohbear. Naturally I respect the wisdom of my own lineage and benefit greatly from what Pooh passed down to me, but my purpose here is to take you to a new level of understanding. You made excellent progress under Pooh’s tutelage, and it is important for you to learn from new human understanding, but you still need to learn from beings who are superior to humans in important matters.”
“I know this is why you’re here, Mombasa,” I replied with a smile. “I can sense that you have been instructing me with your presence, and I’ve been waiting for you to speak. It took a while for Pooh to reveal this ability, so I figured the same was probably true with you.”
“Yes, well, it is a matter of waiting until you are able to hear us, Kat. And now you are. So, tell me what you have just learned about enhancing your positive experiences.”
“Okay, let’s see what I remember.” I held up my hand and touched my index finger.
“First, I need to be on the lookout for positive experiences.”
Then I touched my second finger.
“Second, I need to savor that experience by sustaining it for 20-30 seconds. Rick says many of the positive thoughts we have only last 10 seconds, so they don’t create strong enough neuronal firings to make a lasting impression in our brains. This is where the metaphor of throwing more logs on the fire comes in.” I smiled at Mombasa as I said this, remembering Poohbear sitting with me on our blue couch teaching me about the logs. I took a deep breath and stopped to savor that memory of him.
Mombasa was silent, allowing me to remember Pooh and how much I loved him. After a while, she asked gently, “And what is the third step Rick taught you?”
I took another deep breath and thought about the video again, then touched my third finger and said, “I need to sense and create the intent that my positive experience is soaking into my brain and body, allowing it to register deeply in my emotional memory.”
“Beautiful, Kat. Why don’t you take a moment, close your eyes, and allow yourself to do this with your memory of Poohbear. I will wait until you are finished,” Mombasa said quietly.
I did this, and as I sat seeing myself with Pooh on that blue couch, I felt a little tear crawl down my cheek. The beauty of that moment made me feel warm all over, feeling so loved and appreciated by my wise teacher, and so grateful to him for helping me save my life so I could be here now with Mombasa.
I opened my eyes, and reached over to put my fingers into Mombasa’s luxuriant fur. “I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be here, to be on this new adventure with you.” I said.
“And now you ready to learn what I have to teach you, Kat. For instance, instead of just pausing for a moment when I turn on my back and ask for a belly rub, barely taking your eyes off your computer screen as you do it, how might you respond differently?” she asked.
I laughed at how much she reminded me of Pooh as she said this. “Okay. I get it. I turn away from the computer, face you, and savor the belly rub for 20-30 seconds. Then take the time to let this experience register deeply in my emotional memory.”
“Excellent, Kat. I recommend the full 30 seconds or even longer for your positive experiences with me, to get the full impact. Watch me closely and see how deeply I savor my good experiences, such as lying in the sun, or playing with a feather, or simply lying on your desk, being next to you while you work.”
“I’ve got an even better idea,” I said. “The sun is shining on the rug right now. Why don’t we take a break to do some yoga poses and savor the sun together for a while?”
Mombasa stood up, stretched, and leaped onto the rug, beating me to the best spot as usual. But I didn’t mind. I was here to savor, not compete. . .