“If at bottom we are fighters and flee-ers, greedy and addictive, and envious and mean-spirited, then we need to be kept in line by powerful authority figures, strict rules, and heavy guilt and shame. On the other hand, if underneath it all we are even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted, then we can live more freely, more guided by our own conscience and caring.” — Rick Hanson, Hardwiring for Happiness. (p.32)
I’m happy to report that, apparently, underneath it all, I am even keeled and warm hearted. Indeed, I have evidence that my actions can be more guided by caring than by the need to fight. I can state all this today, on a grey late winter Saturday afternoon, because one week ago my husband’s actions had me at a crossroads. Down one road lay a fight. Down the other was compassion. I am quite sure that in years past, I would have been very pissed, and would have initiated some kind of marital battle. Instead, I’d say I chose compassion — but the truth is, compassion chose me. I wanted to feel angry, I felt I should be angry — but it just wasn’t there. My brain has changed.
All of which tells me that you, too, are “underneath it all” those same good qualities, because I believe my brain changed due to a regular meditation practice. Nothing remarkable, and nothing you can’t also do. In fact, I couldn’t wait to share my discovery with all my meditation classes last week, to let my students know that my personal experience proved to me the truth of research around the benefits of meditation. Not that I doubted Harvard, Yale, and the University of Wisconsin … Still, it was quite exciting to say to my students, if I can do it — and I did — so can you.
Before I describe what happened, I hasten to reassure you (especially any family members reading this!) that, to say that the headline of this blog is an exaggeration is itself a gross understatement. And that picture of him “going volcanic” is really … ummm … quite a few decades old. I’m just having a little fun here.
The incident itself was only fun for one of us, and that one was not me.
Bob, on the other hand, had a blissful Saturday night at the annual Men of Maple Corner “Scotch Slop.” This traditional event began several years ago in response to the annual Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange, to which no men are invited because, after a quick survey, we determined no men wanted to come. Plus, we never schedule the women’s event on a “date night.”
The timing of this year’s event was unfortunate for two reasons. First, Saturday was the night we turned the clocks back, thereby automatically losing an hour of sleep. Second, I was scheduled to deliver a sermon on happiness at my Unitarian Church of Montpelier the next morning — a very big event for me. This was also a semi-big event for Bob, because he and the rest of the Montpelier Ukulele Players were an important part of the service. They were on tap for the prelude (“When You’re Smiling”), special music (“What a Wonderful World”), and postlude (“Happy Trails”). In other words, Bob and I could both use a good night’s sleep.
So, in the days leading up to the Scotch Slop, I repeatedly asked Bob, “please don’t get drunk.” Not that Bob is any way a drunkard, but I really really didn’t want him to be hungover on this particular Sunday morning. His reply to me was, “I usually do pretty well.” Which seemed fair. He hasn’t come home stinking drunk before.
Before last Saturday, that is.
That night, I went to bed early and slept for a few hours before waking up and realizing Bob wasn’t home yet. Not a good sign. My fears about a) how drunk he might be and b) how safe he might be (he was walking home, and it was seriously cold and the roads — covered in sludge which had melted during the day but frozen again after dark — were slick and difficult for even a sober person to navigate) quickly had me wide awake.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before he walked in the door. I asked, “How drunk are you?” He responded, loopily and happily, “Preeeettttty drunk! It was so happy! So many nice people!” Then he fell asleep, loudly. Stinking of Scotch.
I did not fall back asleep, not for hours. I left the bedroom and tried the sofa. After a bit, I left the sofa in favor of the guest room. No luck there, either. As you can imagine, this did not make me happy.
Yet, that’s when the magic happened. Or at least, appreciation of the magic that has already happened in my brain.
As I lay there, trying every meditation trick I could think of to get back to sleep, I was intensely aware that my time for sleep — before my big morning in the pulpit — was slipping away. I also realized, amazingly, that I was not pissed off. Instead, I felt compassion for Bob. Not compassion as in “suffering with” — he certainly wasn’t suffering — but more a sharing of joy that he had enjoyed a night of fun companionship with the men of our community. Maple Corner has a lot of good men, and I was glad for all of the Scotch Sloppers that night. They do their best to do the right thing — for the planet, for the community, for their families. If one night a year they gather and get drunk, fine. Totally fine.
As for Bob specifically, he’s an introvert who didn’t really have friends of his own before we moved to Vermont. He certainly didn’t participate in the community (not that there was much of a community to be part of). I am proud of, and happy for, how he has grown here. He took his responsibility to attend the Scotch Slop seriously. It was really kinda cute. Also, he didn’t purposefully rob me of sleep. Though his choices that night had a negative impact on me, he is normally exceptionally helpful and supportive. So, it was one bad night. Big deal.
This lack of anger — a clear contrast to how I would have reacted in the past — stands out for me as clear proof that meditation has changed my brain structure for the better.
Meditation isn’t my only happiness practice. I have a daily routine, which includes watching (& singing and dancing to) inspirational videos; these two by Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen are current favorites. I also have a daily anticipations journal, a reminder bracelet, a savoring alarm on my phone, and an evening gratitude journal — really, it’s a wonder I have time to do anything else in my life, what with all these sincere attempts to walk the happiness talk. Also, because I teach happiness skills, and coach, and write about it … well, the general topic and all that it entails (living a life of meaning and pleasure, being kind, all that good stuff) are never far from my thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Presumably, all this has changed me. Sometimes I respond to life in ways that surprise me. Last week, for example, walking on a snowy trail through the woods that opened up onto a sunny, snow covered meadow, I found myself bursting into little ballerina twirls of happiness. Like a child, just breathing into spontaneous joy.
But who can really tell cause and effect? Is one particularly fierce hurricane due to climate change? No one can say. Still, when there is a pattern of extreme and weird weather conditions (how much snow did Boston get this year??), then maybe something is really going on.
Nonetheless, I specifically attribute my calm and compassionate thoughts and feelings in the sleepless hours of Saturday night to my meditation practice. In particular, I’ve been doing a lot of meditation which corresponds to the three different operating systems in our brains, as discussed by neuro psychologist Rick Hanson in a book I think everyone should read, Hardwiring for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
Hanson explains that the three major layers of the brain (brain stem, subcortex and cortex) correspond with three operating system that 1) avoid harm, 2) approach rewards, and 3) attach to others. These systems function to meet our basic needs of safety, satisfaction, and connection — or, writ large, as Hanson himself does in a guided meditation as part of his online Foundations of Well-Being course, “peace, contentment, and love.” I have modified that somewhat to “peace, love, safety, and abundance” — four words that I breathe in and out on a nearly daily basis.
My understanding, based on Hanson’s book and course, is that this meditation is like putting money in the bank for each system, thus allowing my brain to respond to a perceived “crisis” in a calm and compassionate manner, rather than flare up in an intense reactive mode.
And my belief is that I have, to a certain extent at least, re-wired my brain, exactly as Hanson promises. I’m also reminded of this video by Dan Harris, who states that the science favoring a regular meditation practice “is really compelling” including studies that show meditation leads to a growth of the part of our brains responsible for compassion while also shrinking the reactive amygdala. No wonder, as Hanson says, meditators can become more “even keeled, grateful, and warmhearted.“
I have to say, I am convinced.
The next morning, by the way, Bob was not hungover and both the ukulele players and the sermon itself went smoothly and were well received.
Afterwards, in the back of the sanctuary, I was talking with some of my choir friends about the sermon, and some of the ways positive psychology suggests we can cultivate personal happiness. One of my friends asked, “But does it really work? Are you happier?”
I smiled and said, why yes, yes I am. In fact, I have proof. Let me tell you a story from last night …
Thus has my sleepless night turned into a gift, a learning tool I can share with others. I am actually grateful to Bob for the learning opportunity he provided me.
I am also grateful the Scotch Slop only happens once a year!