Monday, January 6, 2014

Taking 'the good' for a spin

I've been reading Hardwiring Happiness, which shows us how we can take in and savour more of the good moments in our lives, retraining our brains which have evolved into a kind of "velcro for the bad," as neuropsychologist Rick Hansen calls it.

“Over the course of evolution, animals that were nervous, driven and clinging were more likely to pass on their genes, and these inclinations are now woven into our DNA," Hansen writes. "Even when you feel relaxed and happy and connected, your brain keeps scanning for potential dangers, disappointments, and interpersonal issues. Then when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision...”

that resonated with me. More often than not I feel a kind of defensive vigilance about my son with disabilities. My mind is usually in a hyped-up worry state about something in the future, now that he’s on the precipice of an uncertain adulthood, or calling up painful memories from the past. Because of his anxiety, which manifests itself in compulsive behaviours, others often see him as “bad” and a “problem.” When these images litter my mind, the base of my skull is taut and tense. I get stuck in futile rumination.
To ensure we're giving our brain equal exposure to the good in our life, Hansen in Hardwiring Happiness advocates these steps:
Notice a positive experience...such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience...For example, you could think about things for which you're grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you've completed. As much as you can, help ideas like these become emotionally rewarding experiences; otherwise, it's merely positive thinking.
Enrich it. Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Find something fresh or novel about it. Recognize how it's personally relevant, how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together so they'll wire together.

Absorb it. ...Sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it...Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it easing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource that you can take with you wherever you go.”
I thought I'd try this, but at first I seemed to come up blank. I mean I could momentarily enjoy something like sitting in a fragrant bubble bath, but when I tried to conjure positive feelings and gratitude for my son with disabilities, it was hard to extinguish the negative feedback that some of his compulsive behaviours have recently generated.

I did in the course of a day experience some warm moments that I made an effort to savour and build on.
One was reading Ben the Geronimo Stilton Kingdom of Fantasy series. He is captivated with the characters and the story and when I read it he'll snuggle right up against me and hang on every word.

Another was his willingness to point to the text in his Kumon reading, word by word, while I said the words out loud. He often doesn't have the focus to do this, and will race his fingers over the lines much too fast for me to read it. Because he can't read the story out loud himself I want him to point to the words as I read them.
He's now downstairs watching Howl's Moving Castle and laughing so hard that he has to take gulps of air. He loves the larger than life characters of this Japanese anime film.

These are the kind of images I want to embed in my mind and call up more often.
But I can see how much of a discipline “taking the good in” is, like learning to meditate, and you have to start small.

This piece in The New York Times Motherlode column reminded me that how we see our situation, and the images we fill our mind with, is always a choice. A mother writes about the perspective she gained when her one-year-old with Down syndrome survived a harrowing seven months in isolation battling leukemia.
“Why should I be sad that my girl did not sit up at so-and-so many months, or walk at a year and a half, or talk soon after?” writes Cristina Nehring, who chronicles her daughter’s illness in Journey to the Edge of the Light. Her daughter “Dice listens, she laughs, she caresses; she seems extremely happy," Nehring writes. “All around us parents mutter about their kids growing up too fast. That is one problem we don’t have. We are taking our bloody good time. And if Dice never talked? We would make accommodations. I have been an oddball all my life too. At least my child would have a medical explanation. We would be oddballs together.”

Yesterday one of my daughters told me she had a funny dream. "We were all in this massive car and Ben was driving," she said. "He was driving really well—fast and dodging obstacles like garbage cans, people and animals.” She moved her arms to mimic steering a wheel. “It was almost like we were in a video game except it was real."

"That's so cool," I said. "I love that dream and Ben would love it too."
For a moment that image of freedom and self-determination for Ben filled my mind and I treasured it. And why shouldn't I? Why shouldn’t I keep calling up special moments when we sit side by side, enjoying a book?

It’s just as easy to rest my brain in all of the problems, the challenges and the worries.
And neither is the whole picture.


Thank you for reminding us to always look for the light, Louise. I read somewhere that the key to joy is gratitude. So while we often have to say, 'help me, help me, help me,', we should also remember to say, 'thank you thank you thank you'. xo

Wonderful post and good reminder for me. I will practice these techniques today! Thank you, Louise!

Yes, this is a good reminder for me as well. I once took a fantastic online course called "Awakening Joy." I distinctly remember reading in the materials given that meditation on and noticing the sensations attached to "good" moments helps to train the brain to "go" there more often.

Thank you Louise! One of my resolutions for this year was to make more of an effort to stay positive and practice gratitude so this post is very timely!

Great post Louise and such an important reminder for me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I continue to get so much out of your generosity.
And nice to see in the comments that a focus on intentionally practicing gratitude and good thoughts are on the minds of a few of us. : )