Excerpted from the book, Buddha's Brain; The practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom
by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius
Published by New Harbinger
The First and
Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them. --Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Some physical discomfort is unavoidable; it's a crucial signal to take action to protect life and limb, like the pain that makes you pull your hand back from a hot stove. Some mental discomfort is inevitable, too. For example, as we evolved, growing emotional investments in children and other members of the band motivated our ancestors to keep those carriers of their genes alive; understandably, then, we feel distress when dear ones are threatened and sorrow when they are harmed. We also evolved to care greatly about our place in the band and in the hearts of others, so it's normal to feel hurt if you're rejected or scorned.
To borrow an expression from the Buddha, inescapable physical or mental discomfort is the "first dart" of existence. As long as you live and love, some of those darts will come your way.
The Darts We Throw Ourselves
First darts are unpleasant to be sure. But then we add our reactions to them. These reactions are "second darts"--the ones we throw ourselves. Most of our suffering comes from second darts.
Suppose you're walking through a dark room at night and stub your toe on a chair; right after the first dart of pain comes a second dart of anger: "Who moved that darn chair?!" Or maybe a loved one is cold to you when you're hoping for some caring; in addition to the natural drop in the pit of your stomach (first dart), you might feel unwanted (second dart) as a result of having been ignored as a child.
Second darts often trigger more second darts through associative neural networks: you might feel guilt about your anger that someone moved the chair, or sadness that you feel hurt yet again by someone you love. In relationships, second darts create vicious cycles: your second-dart reactions trigger reactions from the other person, which set off more second darts from you, and so on.
Remarkably, most of our second-dart reactions occur when there is in fact no first dart anywhere to be found--when there's no pain inherent in the conditions we're reacting to. We add suffering to them. For example, sometimes I'll come home from work and the house will be a mess, with the kids' stuff all over. That's the condition. Is there a first dart in the coats and shoes on the sofa or the clutter covering the counter? No, there isn't; no one dropped a brick on me or hurt my children.
Do I have to get upset? Not really.
I could ignore the stuff, pick it up calmly, or talk with them about it. Sometimes I manage to handle it that way. But if I don't, then the second darts start landing, tipped with the Three Poisons: greed makes me rigid about how I want things to be, hatred gets me all bothered and angry, and delusion tricks me into taking the situation personally.
Saddest of all, some second-dart reactions are to conditions that are actually positive. If someone pays you a compliment, that's a positive situation. But then you might start thinking, with some nervousness and even a little shame: Oh, I'm not really that good a person. Maybe they'll find out I'm a fraud. Right there, needless second-dart suffering begins.
Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It's embodied: you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you see it increasingly as an impersonal condition--unpleasant to be sure, but not worth getting upset about, which would just bring more second darts.
Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Let's unscramble this alphabet soup to see how it all works. While the SNS and HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they're best described together, as an integrated system. And we'll focus on reactions dominated by an aversion to sticks (e.g., fear, anger) rather than a grasping for carrots, since aversive reactions usually have a bigger impact due to the negativity bias of the brain.
Alarms Go Off
Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones since psychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain (Eisenberger and Lieberman 2004); this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event--such as giving a talk next week-- can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions:
The thalamus--the relay station in the middle of your head--sends a "Wake up!" signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain.
The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing.
The hypothalamus--the brain's primary regulator of the endocrine system--prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the "stress hormones"
Ready for Action
Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words, you're at least a little upset. What's going on in your body?
Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups.
Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange-- enabling you to hit harder or run faster.
Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways: First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdale further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system--which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol.
Reproduction is sidelined--no time for sex when you're running for cover. The same for digestion: salivation decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated.
Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger.
As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It's like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of others' intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening car thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you're upset and your thoughts about it later when you're calmer.
In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what's the cost of this today, with the chronic lowgrade stresses of modern life?
Key Parts of Your Brain
Each of these parts of your brain does many things; the functions listed here are those relevant to this book.
Prefrontal cortex (PFC)--sets goals, makes plans, directs action; shapes emotions, in part by guiding and sometimes inhibiting the limbic system
Anterior (frontal) cingulate cortex (ACC)--steadies attention and monitors plans; helps integrate thinking and feeling (Yamasaki, LaBar, and McCarthy 2002); a "cingulate" is a curved bundle of nerve fibers
Insula--senses the internal state of your body, including gut feelings; helps you be empathic; located on the inside of the temporal lobes on each side of your head (temporal lobes and insula not shown in figure 6)
Thalamus--the major relay station for sensory information
Brain stem--sends neuromodulators such as serotonin and dopamine to the rest of the brain
Corpus callosum--passes information between the two hemispheres of the brain
Limbic system--central to emotion and motivation; includes the basal ganglia, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and pituitary gland; sometimes also considered to include parts of the cortex (e.g., cingulate, insula), but for simplicity we will define it anatomically in terms of subcortical structures; many parts of the brain besides the limbic system are involved with emotion
Basal ganglia--involved with rewards, stimulation seeking, and movement; "ganglia" are masses of tissue
Hippocampus--forms new memories; detects threats
Amygdala--a kind of "alarm bell" that responds particularly to emotionally charged or negative stimuli (Rasia-Filho, Londero, and Achaval 2000)
Hypothalamus--regulates primal drives such as hunger and sex; makes oxytocin; activates the pituitary gland
Pituitary gland--makes endorphins; triggers stress hormones; stores and releases oxytocin
Life on Simmer
Getting fired up for good reason--such as becoming passionate and enthusiastic, handling emergencies, or being forceful for a good cause--definitely has its place in life. But second darts are a bad reason to light up the SNS/HPAA system, and if they become routine, they can push the needle on your personal stress meter into the red zone. Further, apart from your individual situation, we live in a pedal-to-the-metal society that relies on nonstop SNS/HPAA activation; unfortunately, this is completely unnatural in terms of our evolutionary template.
For all of these reasons, most of us experience ongoing SNS/ HPAA arousal. Even if your pot isn't boiling over, just simmering along with second-dart activation is quite unhealthy. It continually shunts resources away from long-term projects--such as building a strong immune system or preserving a good mood--in favor of short-term crises. And this has lasting consequences.
In our evolutionary past, when most people died by forty or so, the short-term benefits of SNS/HPAA activation outweighed its long-term costs. But for people today who are interested in living well during their forties and beyond, the accumulating damage of an overheated life is a real concern. For example, chronic SNS/HPAA stimulation disturbs these systems and increases risks for the health problems listed (Licinio, Gold, and Wong 1995; Sapolsky 1998; Wolf 1995):
Gastrointestinal--ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation
Immune--more frequent colds and flus, slower wound healing, greater vulnerability to serious infections
Cardiovascular--hardening of the arteries, heart attacks
Endocrine--type II diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, erectile dysfunction, lowered libido
For all their effects on the body, second darts usually have their greatest impact on psychological well-being. Let's see how they work in your brain to raise anxiety and lower mood.
Repeated SNS/HPAA activity makes the amygdala more reactive to apparent threats, which in turn increases SNS/HPAA activation, which sensitizes the amygdala further. The mental correlate of this physical process is an increasingly rapid arousal of state anxiety (anxiety based on specific situations).
Additionally, the amygdala helps form implicit memories (traces of past experiences that exist beneath conscious awareness); as it becomes more sensitized, it increasingly shades those residues with fear, thus intensifying trait anxiety (ongoing anxiety regardless of the situation).
Meanwhile, frequent SNS/HPAA activation wears down the hippocampus, which is vital for forming explicit memories--clear records of what actually happened.
Cortisol and related glucocorticoid hormones both weaken existing synaptic connections in the hippocampus and inhibit the formation of new ones.
Further, the hippocampus is one of the few regions in the human brain that can actually grow new neurons--yet glucocorticoids prevent the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, impairing its ability to produce new memories.
It's a bad combination for the amygdala to be oversensitized while the hippocampus is compromised: painful experiences can then be recorded in implicit memory--with all the distortions and turbo-charging of an amygdala on overdrive--without an accurate explicit memory of them. This might feel like: Something happened, I'm not sure what, but I'm really upset. This may help explain why victims of trauma can feel dissociated from the awful things they experienced, yet be very reactive to any trigger that reminds them unconsciously of what once occurred. In less extreme situations, the one-two punch of a revved-up amygdala and a weakened hippocampus can lead to feeling a little upset a lot of the time without exactly knowing why.
Routine SNS/HPAA activation undermines the biochemical basis of an even-keeled--let alone cheerful--disposition in a number of ways:
Norepinephrine helps you feel alert and mentally energetic, but glucocorticoid hormones deplete it.
Reduced norepinephrine may cause you to feel flat--even apa thetic--with poor concentration; these are classic symptoms of depression.
Over time, glucocorticoids lower the production of dopamine. This leads to a loss of enjoyment of activities once found pleasurable: another classic criterion for depression.
Stress reduces serotonin, probably the most important neurotransmitter for maintaining a good mood. When serotonin drops, so does norepinephrine, which has already been diminished by glucocorticoids. In short, less serotonin means more vulnerability to a blue mood and less alert interest in the world.
An Intimate Process
Of course, our experience of these physiological processes is very intimate. When I'm upset, I sure don't think about all of these biochemical details. But having a general idea of them in the back of my mind helps me appreciate the sheer physicality of a second dart cascade, its impersonal nature and dependence on preceding causes, and its impermanence.
This understanding is hopeful and motivating. Suffering has clear causes in your brain and body, so if you change its causes, you'll suffer a lot less. And you can change those causes. From this point on, we're going to focus on how to do just that.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
So far, we've examined how reactions powered by greed and hatred-- especially the latter--ripple through your brain and body, shaped by the sympathetic nervous system. But the SNS is just one of the three wings of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which operates mostly below the level of consciousness to regulate many bodily systems and their responses to changing conditions. The other two wings of the ANS are the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the enteric nervous system (which regulates your gastrointestinal system). Let's focus on the PNS and SNS as they play crucial roles in your suffering--and its end.
The PNS conserves energy in your body and is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. It produces a feeling of relaxation, often with a sense of contentment--this is why it's sometimes called the "rest-and-digest" system, in contrast to the "fight-or-flight" SNS. These two wings of the ANS are connected like a seesaw: when one goes up, the other one goes down.
Parasympathetic activation is the normal resting state of your body, brain, and mind. If your SNS were surgically disconnected, you'd stay alive (though you wouldn't be very useful in an emergency). If your PNS were disconnected, however, you'd stop breathing and soon die. Sympathetic activation is a change to the baseline of PNS equilibrium in order to respond to a threat or an opportunity. The cooling, steadying influence of the PNS helps you think clearly and avoid hot-headed actions that would harm you or others. The PNS also quiets the mind and fosters tranquility, which supports contemplative insight.
The Big Picture
The PNS and SNS evolved hand in hand in order to keep animals--including humans--alive in potentially lethal environments. We need both of them.
For example, take five breaths, inhaling and exhaling a little more fully than usual. This is both energizing and relaxing, activating first the sympathetic system and then the parasympathetic one, back and forth, in a gentle rhythm.
Notice how you feel when you're done.
That combination of aliveness and centeredness is the essence of the peak performance zone recognized by athletes, businesspeople, artists, lovers, and meditators. It's the result of the SNS and PNS, the gas pedal and the brakes, working in harmony together.
Happiness, love, and wisdom aren't furthered by shutting down the SNS, but rather by keeping the autonomic nervous system as a whole in an optimal state of balance:
Mainly parasympathetic arousal for a baseline of ease and peacefulness
Mild SNS activation for enthusiasm, vitality, and wholesome passions
Occasional SNS spikes to deal with demanding situations, from a great opportunity at work to a late-night call from a teenager who needs a ride home from a party gone bad
This is your best-odds prescription for a long, productive, happy life. Of course, it takes practice.
A Path of Practice
As the saying goes, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. If you can simply stay present with whatever is arising in awareness--whether it's a first dart or a second one--without reacting further, then you will break the chain of suffering right there. Over time, through training and shaping your mind and brain, you can even change what arises, increasing what's positive and decreasing what's negative. In the meantime, you can rest in and be nourished by a growing sense of the peace and clarity in your true nature.
These three processes--being with whatever arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and taking refuge in the ground of being--are the essential practices of the path of awakening. In many ways they correspond, respectively, to mindfulness, virtue, and wisdom--and to the three fundamental neural functions of learning, regulating, and selecting.
As you deal with different issues on your path of awakening, you'll repeatedly encounter these stages of growth:
Stage one--you're caught in a second-dart reaction and don't even realize it: your partner forgets to bring milk home and you complain angrily without seeing that your reaction is over the top.
Stage two--you realize you've been hijacked by greed or hatred (in the broadest sense), but cannot help yourself: internally you're squirming, but you can't stop grumbling bitterly about the milk.
Stage three--some aspect of the reaction arises, but you don't act it out: you feel irritated but remind yourself that your partner does a lot for you already and getting cranky will just make things worse.
Stage four--the reaction doesn't even come up, and sometimes you forget you ever had the issue: you understand that there's no milk, and you calmly figure out what to do now with your partner.
In education, these are known succinctly as unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. They're useful labels for knowing where you are with a given issue. The second stage is the hardest one, and often where we want to quit. So it's important to keep aiming for the third and fourth stages--just keep at it and you'll definitely get there!
It takes effort and time to clear old structures and build new ones. I call this the law of little things: although little moments of greed, hatred, and delusion have left residues of suffering in your mind and brain, lots of little moments of practice will replace these