The recent fusion of evolutionary neuroscience with psychology has shed a great deal of light on the workings of our brains and the reasons for our emotions. In an earlier article on this website, Mindfulness Meditation – How to Slay Your Inner Dragon, we looked at the fears that are often generated by the primitive “lizard brain” always on the look-out for threats, both real and imagined. In this article, we look at the emotional dimension of a later evolutionary structure – the subcortical region inherited from early mammals – and suggest practical ways to keep that little critter inside us happy.
Getting to Know Your Inner Menagerie
This recognition of emotional legacies from previous evolutionary states, and the cute animal analogy that accompanies it, was most effectively popularized by Dr. Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius in their 2009 book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, though the basic concept did not originate with them. The brain can be seen as three layers. The deepest layer – the brainstem – corresponds to the earliest brains in reptiles, and is concerned primarily with the avoidance of harm. (Remember how the dinosaurs had notoriously small “pea brains”?) Subsequent evolution of the first mammals added the layer we now call the subcortical region, an area concerned with approaching rewards; i.e. getting food. The final layer – the cortex – came with the development of the later mammals and primates, and added a concern for attachment to a group. Thus, in the analogy that can easily be taken too far if we’re not careful, there is a little menagerie in our heads consisting of a frightened lizard, a hungry squirrel, and a clingy monkey. We must be attentive to each of their needs to have a nice day at the zoo!
Why Should We Be Nice to That Squirrel?
A squirrel with a nice cache of nuts is a happy squirrel. Feelings of contentment, accomplishment, and satisfaction reduce our stress levels, boost our immune systems, increase our resilience, and make us more generous toward, and considerate of, the needs of others. One of Dr. Hanson’s repeated themes is that thought patterns literally rewire the brain over time, and we should therefore attempt to program ourselves for greater happiness. I would go further and add, admittedly in a metaphysical vein, that positive emotions tend to beget experiences that reinforce them. If you’re looking to experience more abundance in life, feeding that inner squirrel is exactly what you need to do to ward off the poverty-consciousness that can trap you in a death spiral of diminishing opportunities and poorer outcomes.
Mindfulness Meditation on Abundance
To make that inner squirrel feel “fed,” we must be mindful of situations during the day when our basic needs are being met. Readers of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret will notice the emphasis on cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” in these suggestions:
- Mealtime is, of course, one of the most obvious: be grateful for the food that nourishes your body, and recognize that literally millions of other people – but not you – will be going to sleep hungry tonight.
- Breathing exercises are a classic form of mindfulness meditation. With each breath, be thankful that all the cells in your body are receiving the oxygen they need.
- An appreciation for oxygen may remind you of other basic substances that we generally take for granted. When you have a drink (no soda, please – that’s poison), be thankful for the water without which you would quickly die. I like to contemplate the fact that earth is the most remarkable planet in the solar system because of its abundance of water, the prerequisite for life. (And if you really want to go to town, you can think about the unique properties of the water molecule that make ice float on top of water, preventing rivers, lakes, and seas from freezing solid and becoming inaccessible to us.)
- Once you start thinking about the earth as a uniquely hospitable environment that meets our needs amazingly well, you can derive feelings of comfort and security from the presence of plants and animals, the clouds in the sky, the warm sun on your skin, the ground beneath your feet.
- You can also be more aware of man-made benefits that are all around you, fulfilling your needs. If you live in a hot climate, like I do, appreciate your air conditioning and the refrigerator that protects your food from spoilage. If you have a car, think about how it saves you from having to walk ten miles to the grocery store.
Hopefully, reading this short list of suggested mindfulness exercises will get you thinking about your own. It’s quite remarkable how quickly these exercises can change the way you feel. Even if you’re going through tough times – as so many people are right now – there is still plenty to be thankful for if we simply shift our focus. Some people need a near-death experience to learn this lesson; all we needed was a little squirrel.