Saturday, December 29, 2012

Joy: Embrace It for Healing

The second word of the holiday season I’ve been thinking about is “joy.” [Last week’s post was Believe-It Effects How we Feel]How often do we let ourselves totally enjoy it?

Four years ago on New Year’s Eve, I took a neighbor and friend to their monthly medical appointment, where they were continuing to be monitored for a return of lung cancer. It was a very good visit, and as we were leaving the hospital, I said, “we have much to celebrate tonight.” While she had been happy to report “everything is fine,” she became a bit sad and said, “It’s fine now, but the cancer will return.”

Last week I came across a quote from Brene Brown, which would have been a good response to this comment.  “Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen—and they do happen—we are stronger.”

Our brains are wired to make us fearful, as for centuries, being on guard kept us from being eaten by the tiger. “Yes, the hunt was successful, but it could attract animals that could steal the food and/or kill us.” In short, we have been “programmed” and have a lot of practice at tamping down our joy.

Since emotions and experiences leave lasting impressions on the brain, which influences how we feel, it’s important to understand that one negative experience can wreck many positive ones. Have you been at a party, on vacation or had a visit with a friend, where 99% of it was fun and very enjoyable, yet one negative thing happened and that becomes the lasting memory? Now if you’ve talked about this with friends, some will say, “just let it go and concentrate on the good stuff.” Good advice, but one we have little practice doing.

 “Imprinting” our brain with positive thoughts and joy, as Brown noted, has some very important benefits including:
-       They lower the stress response in the body.
-       Increase resilience and can counter act the effects of trauma
-       Help to protect against depression
-       Increase well being

In order to emphasize the positive through conscious attention, Rick Hanson’s, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, outlines Three Simple Steps as part of Seven Facts about the Brain That Incline the Mind to Joy 
1. Help positive events become positive experiences. You can do this by:
• Paying attention to the good things in your world, and inside yourself. So often, good events roll by our eyes without us noticing them. You could set a goal each day to actively look for beauty in your world, or signs of caring for you by others, or good qualities within yourself, etc.

• Deciding to let yourself feel pleasure and be happy, rather than feel ascetic or guilty about enjoying life. In particular, release any resistance for feeling good about yourself. You've earned the good times: the meal is set before you, it's already paid for, and you might as well dig in! You are just being fair, seeing the truth of things. You are not being vain or arrogant - which distort the truth of things.

• Opening up to the emotional and sensate aspects of your responses to positive events, since that is the pathway to experiencing things.

• Sometimes doing things deliberately to create positive experiences for yourself. For example, you could take on a challenge, or do something nice for others, or bring to mind feelings of compassion and caring, or call up the sense or memory of feeling contented, peaceful, and happy.

2. Extend the experience in time and space:
• Keep your attention on it so it lingers; don't just jump onto something else. Notice any discomfort with staying with feeling good.

• Let it fill your body with positive sensations and emotions. (That’s the space part.)

In sum, savor, relish the positive experience. It's delicious!

3. Sense that the positive experience is soaking into your brain and body - registering deeply in emotional memory.

Perhaps imagine that it's sinking into your chest and back and brainstem. Maybe imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

Take the time to do this: 5 or 10 or 20 seconds. Keep relaxing your body and absorbing the positive experience.

As Hanson notes, The innate neurological circuitry of your mind poses a very real challenge: positive stimuli tend to roll through it while negative stimuli get flagged and captured and deferred to. But you can consciously override those tendencies in simple and effective ways each day, by focusing on positive experiences, valuing them, and helping them sink in.

That’s a deeply wise and wonderful undertaking: happiness is skillful means. And happily for happiness, this is aligned with your deepest nature: awake, interested, benign, at peace, and quietly inclined to joy.

In keeping with this post, the last one for 2012, I send you best wishes for a joyous New Year.

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