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I first encountered Rick Hanson’s books when I met a young woman named Riley. She told me that she had been committed to a mental health unit after a suicide attempt as a teenager. Riley’s boyfriend had committed suicide a year prior and she was severely depressed. In the mental health unit, she was prescribed a variety of drugs which she says she didn’t actually swallow. What she did do was read the book “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson, and apply the techniques in there. She told me that it saved her life.
I read that book and also another of his, Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, which I found to be better. It’s a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. If you don’t have a lot of time, focus on the 21 exercises in chapter 10 and also the specific antidote suggestions in Table 5 (page 137-138).
So what is Taking in the Good? It is basically a strategy to notice experiences that meet our needs and actually remember them. As we saw in Section 3, our brains are like velcro for bad stuff (noticing and remembering it easily) and teflon for good stuff (good memories don’t stick easily, they just slip away). It’s a sort of specific strategy for gratitude that is backed by neuroscience.
Taking in the good heals ‘heart holes’ – those stories we carry around with us that take away our capacity to fully feel satisfied, safe, and connected. These stories are often made up in early childhood. Our first impressions are very strong and the emotional rules we make as kids are difficult to change.
What happens when we get new information that contradicts the rule? Our minds just make stuff up. We twist and turn our stories around so that the rule still holds. If we are really sure in our gut that we aren’t lovable, but someone says they love us, then something’s wrong their judgement. ‘Maybe they don’t see the real me, or maybe they’re lying,’ for example.
Taking in the good is recognizing the antidote experiences, the situations that prove our unhealthy emotional rules wrong, and really soaking them in. Hanson is a neuroscientist and he explains that it takes about 15-30 seconds of really experiencing those antidote experiences in order to take them in properly. Otherwise our attention just slips right by it and looks for something negative to focus on.
Taking in the Good is not a one-time fix, but a lifestyle, a habit that can create a positivity bias instead of a negativity bias. Hanson gives four steps, with the acronym of HEAL:
- Have a positive experience (contradicts your unhealthy emotional rule)
- Enrich the experience (take in information with all of your senses)
- Absorb the experience (make a point of remembering somehow)
- Link positive and negative material (think about the rule and then feel your experience contradicting it)
Here’s an example from my own life.
One of my heart holes, my recurring subconscious stories about myself, is that I don’t belong. I moved to a rural area at 5 and grew up as an outsider. Deep down, below the level of words, I feel that if people really knew me for myself, they would shun me.
That’s one thing that makes this course a little hard to teach. My BAT book was fairly controversial, but this course is going out on a limb. It’s a new direction from me, from dogs to humans. My self-doubt sometimes asks “who are you to teach this material?”
I realize that’s not rational. It’s just my old conditioning, and fortunately the stories spun by self-doubt are no longer something I take seriously. No I don’t have a Ph.D. in psychology, just some graduate work. I am not a hermit, I don’t life on an ashram, I’m not a neuroscientist. But I’ve spent a lot of time and study on the techniques in this course, and I’ve used them all. This stuff isn’t all common knowledge and putting it into practice has made my life wonderful. Of course I want to teach these skills to people.
I’ve historically been a people pleaser. My whole life, to varying degrees, I have pruned away the parts of myself that I knew my friends, colleagues, or lovers didn’t like. When I take a risk to put my ideas or heart out there (as I am in the course), that’s a big deal. I’m learning to be brave and authentic all the time, now, but it’s still a big deal!
Recently, I gave a talk at a conference on a subject that I dearly love – empowering dogs to get over their fears using Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). The audience packed the room, standing room only, to learn about the technique that I developed. As someone who subconsciously believes that she isn’t good enough and doesn’t belong, seeing my work change lives never ceases to humble and amaze me.
It would have be easy to just give the talk and move on. I do these all the time now, for the past decade. But I know that feeling appreciated is an antidote experience to the holes in my heart, so I deliberately took it in.
The H step in healing is to have a positive experience. For me, that was giving the talk and having people come up to me and say how they’ve used my techniques to help dogs. Some of them gave me hugs. A woman looked me in the eye and thanked me for making a difference. She used BAT with her lab mix and now the dog is social, just like any other dog. He belongs, too. Wow!
I went through the E step next, and enriched the experience using information from my senses, taking about 30 seconds (when I have time I like to savor the good stuff like this!).
Here’s what I can recall from my memory: I’m in a conference hotel in Portland. I can smell the coffee in the decanter on the table. I hear the bustle of people selling dog products at their booths, the clink of glasses being set down on the refreshment table.
It’s a beautiful, hot sunny day outside, but it’s cold in the hotel, air conditioned to feel like a crisp fall day. When the woman tells me about her dog, her smile is full of her love and compassion for him. She shows me a picture of them together, and another of him with his new dog friends. I can tell she wants a hug and I do, too, so I ask her if she’s a hugger and we embrace briefly. Oxytocin flows and I feel connected to this woman and to humanity.
Next I moved on and Absorbed this experience. This can be anything from visualization to just mentally telling your brain to remember this moment.
One of my favorite ways to absorb an antidote experience is to summarize it in a few words in the third person for focus (“you make a difference, Grisha”) and hold that phrase in my mind as I imagine the enriched sensory experience coalescing into a small ball of warm light on my hand. I bring the hand to my heart and the light gets sucked inside; then my heart pumps the light throughout my entire body, until I’m glowing and sharing more light with the world.
Another visualization I like is from Hardwiring Happiness, to imagine the memory as millions of little motes of pixie dust, settling over me and deep into all of my cells.
The final step is optional, to be done when you feel really solid about the earlier steps. Linking that positive experience to a negative one, so that the triggers for feeling the hole in your heart start bringing up the antidote experience instead. It’s like a cue transfer, so situations that used to trigger negative thoughts will pull up the good memories you’ve taken in.
You basically start thinking of things that trigger your old stories, and then shift back to taking in the good before the feelings overwhelm you. That’s similar to how you might do a cue transfer, by lightly knocking on a door and then immediately cuing the dog to go to his bed. The “Go to Bed” cue needs to be pre-trained with positive reinforcement, just as Taking in the Good needs to be practiced before pairing it with negative experiences.
As I mentioned I sometimes find myself wondering who I am to give life advice. I know intellectually I have studied an immense amount and learned some powerful things to share. I know that I love my life and want others to have a similar experience.
But I can also picture the critics. So in the Linking step, I briefly imagine judgmental Facebook comments, and before my heart freezes solid and doubt overwhelms me, I can go back to that stored memory that I deliberately took in.
I can relive the experience of a trainer sharing how my work made a difference to her, and the ice in my belly melts. I picture the glow of her gratitude lighting me up and spreading out to others. I picture the other memories of talking to people and connecting with them, helping them by sharing the resources I’ve found. And I think, this personal work…this is also powerful stuff and more people need to know about it.
You might be thinking, “well that works for you because you write books. I don’t make a big difference.” First, question that limiting belief. You probably do make a big difference to some of the people in your life. And even if you don’t, it’s the small things that matter. The authentic smile you gave to the grocery clerk and how it made her smile back for a moment. The dog whose life is better because you gave his caregiver a better way to understand him.
Once you start looking for memories to take in, you’ll see them everywhere. Take in several things a day, and they end up taking up all the mental space that used to be taken by negativity.
One of my most cherished antidote moments was simply sitting beside a friend who was worried. I just sat there, breathing in, breathing out until he calmed down. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t need to. Later, he said, “thank you for your you,” and it had the most powerful impact on my heart. I later revisited that memory over and over, to boost me out of a time where I was feeling like I didn’t belong. That’s a priceless memory, and without deliberately taking the good, I might have lost it forever.
Here’s Rick Hanson describing Taking in the Good, which turns passing experiences into neurological support structures for happiness and resilience.