Return the Brain to Wholeness
Accepting all aspects of ourself, even the parts we don't particularly like, can be a powerful practice for releasing ourselves from suffering.
In this excerpt from his latest book, Neurodharma, psychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. explores how to unify various aspects of our mind, and to appreciate them all.
When your mind is focused on solving problems or is wandering about, attention keeps shifting from one thing to another. For example, suppose you see a cookie. The image of the cookie is now a “part” of your consciousness. Next, there is the wish to have the cookie—“Me want cookie!”—which is now a second part of consciousness. Then there is the thought “Oh no, cookies have gluten and calories, not for me”—and a third part is now in the mind. But then another part speaks up: “You’ve worked hard, you deserve that cookie, it’s okay . . .”
Parts interacting with other parts, often in conflict with one another. This is the structure of most of our suffering: parts of the mind struggling with other parts. Think of something that has bothered you recently and consider some of the parts of this experience, and how they pushed and pulled against each other. On the other hand, as a sense of wholeness increases, this inner division decreases, and suffering decreases as well.
In this common way of experiencing oneself—parts and more parts—it’s all too easy to push away parts that feel vulnerable, embarrassing, “bad,” or painful. It’s as if the mind is a big house with many rooms, and some of them are locked up for fear of what’s inside. As understandable as this is, it leads to problems. We make ourselves numb to keep the doors bolted shut. But the more repression, the less vitality and passion. The more parts we exile, the less we know ourselves. The more we hide, the more we fear being found out.
Personally, by the time I got to college, it seemed like most of the rooms of my own mind were boarded up. Over the years I’ve had to work on accepting myself—all of myself, every bit, the scared parts, the angry parts, the insecure parts. Through practicing what Tara Brach calls radical acceptance—including accepting yourself—you can reclaim every room in your mind while still acting appropriately.
In fact, it is by opening up these rooms that you can best manage whatever they contain. It’s like drawing on two traditional healing tools of a physician: light and air. For a practice of this, please see below. Accepting yourself will help you feel whole, and feeling whole will help you accept yourself.
Acceptance means recognizing that something exists as a fact whether you like it or not, with a feeling of softening and surrendering to this reality. Meanwhile, you can still make efforts to change things for the better.
Pick something pleasant, such as a cup you like, and explore the sense of accepting it. Do the same with something that is neutral for you, such as a patch of beige carpet, and accept it. Then pick something mildly unpleasant—perhaps an annoying noise—and help yourself accept it.
Know what acceptance feels like. Your body could relax and breathing could ease. There could be thoughts such as “It’s just the way it is . . . I don’t like it, but I can accept it.” There could be perspective about the big picture and the many causes of whatever you’re accepting. It might help to imagine friends or others who are with you and supporting you as you face what you’re accepting. Be aware of the difference between a feeling of acceptance, which usually has a calming, a peacefulness . . . and a feeling of helplessness or defeat.
Pick a positive characteristic about yourself, such as a skill or good intention. Explore what it’s like to accept this. Next, pick a neutral characteristic such as the fact that you are breathing, and accept it. Then pick something you think is mildly negative about yourself and explore accepting it. Gradually raise the challenge level and build the “muscle” of self-acceptance.
Let things bubble up into awareness, and explore what it feels like to accept them, such as: “Ah, an ache in my lower back, I accept this . . . resentful feelings about someone accepting these . . . the sense of a young child inside, hello, little one . . . some scary things down in the basement, wishing they weren’t there but accepting them, too . . .”
Look for sweet, admirable, passionate, tender, good things inside yourself, and take time to accept them. You might imagine bowing to these parts of yourself, welcoming and thanking them, and including them in all of who you are.
Then pick something inside that you are embarrassed or remorseful about, and explore accepting it. Start with something small while knowing that you can take responsibility for it and act wisely. Imagine that compassion, kindness, and understanding are touching these parts of you.
Let the walls inside you soften . . . Let everything flow as it will . . . Relax as a whole being . . . being whole . . .
A review of Neurodharma is included in our May/June print issue, and we talked with Rick Hanson about the book.
Excerpted from Neurodharma © 2020 by Rick Hanson. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.