Last night I attended this mindfullness group I sometimes go to on campus after work. We had a guest speaker who was talking about--well, various things--but one of them was neuroplasticity, and how we can form new neural pathways and change our temperments and the way we think and feel about events and circumstances. Apparently, we (humans) through evolution, have developed a negative bias when we look at the world, because back in the day it wasn't as important to remember all the nights that you ducked into a empty cave and had a nice nap or campfire with roasted elk-meat as it was to remember the one time you ducked into a cave and found a bear inside. While running like hell from the bear and sleeping shivering in the cold behind a rock was an unpleasant experience, you needed to remember that in order to avoid the bear cave in the future, and to stay vigilant for signs of bear when entering a new cave.
Nowadays, the "negative bias" doesn't always serve us so well. If twenty people compliment your outfit but one person makes a snide remark--focusing on the negative thing might be unnecessary for survival, and just plain bad for your mood. All else being equal, why not think about the nice things that people said, and be happier, and maybe because you're happier, you'll be nicer, and maybe that will lead to better relationships...etc.
The logic goes (according to this guest speaker's summary of several books I haven't read myself) that in order to think about the good things, you have to consciously practice, until, with enough practice, your brain starts doing it naturally. (It all sounded related (or the same as) cultivating gratitude, which I've been a fan of since being introduced to it a few years ago.)
The speaker gave an example of an exercise where you find something pleasant but overlooked to meditate upon, like "how nice it is to breathe, to have enough air." When she said this, I thought, "that's right! It is pretty awesome to breathe." But then she kept talking--and this was not so much the teaching as just a thought from her life I think-- she said, "I have a friend who has cancer, and when we talked the other day, he told me he was having trouble breathing, that he couldn't get enough air anymore."
I think this was supposed to just shine a little light on how air is something to appreciate, but it kind of spiraled for me. As my niece once told me at age seven, "we don't compare, because it doesn't make anyone feel good." When depositing monthly paychecks for people at work that equals my annual pay, I've found it isn't happy-making to dwell. On the flip side, thinking of starving children in Africa has never helped my appetite either. This is not to say that one should live one's whole life with blinders, or ignore injustices and societal ills because we don't like to think about them. But in some cases, there is nothing you can do. I can't help her friend breathe better. I can only feel deep sympathy for her friend--not a bad thing--there are other exercises designed just to help us be more compassionate -- but I'm not sure that it sets up a strictly "positive" neural pathway.
Instead, it reinforces a neural pathway that I think I've pretty much worn smooth with use--the awareness of suffering--my own and that of others. Having survived cancer twice, I've experienced some pain, I am frequently--habitually--grateful for the absence of pain, for every test result that doesn't predict the necessity for more pain. I'm thankful for my everyday life. And at the same time. I'm acutely aware that my state of blessedness is both temporary and has a random quality to it. Aware that while my pain went away, and I healed, there are people--some that I know--who deal with chronic pain, who are suffering even as I am not suffering. And whatever I choose to be grateful for today can be taken away from me at any moment.* Toward the end of his life, my father complained about not being able to breathe. It's not a big leap for me to imagine a day when I might not be able to breathe.
It makes me sad. I hope that with practice, by the time that day comes, I'll think, "but look at the sun outside the window--isn't it great to be able to see the light?" and genuinely feel grateful for that. Gratitude coexists with suffering. We suffer because we've been given the gift of being alive.
Still, it doesn't always seem fair.
*As an example--I 've often expressed gratitude for the fact that I am a great sleeper, and thought it would be awful to be one of those people who wakes up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep. I am writing this now because I woke up at 2:30 AM, and I haven't been able to go back to sleep. So far, it's not as bad as I feared--but then, I haven't yet had to get through the day tomorrow.
Related articlesScroll back up and click on that "Neuroplasticity" link. It's a 2-minute video that's interesting.
The book being discussed by our speaker was called Hardwiring Happiness. (I haven't read it)
The author did a TED talk. (I haven't watched it because I don't want to wake up my husband)
You might be interested in this cliff's Notes Version (actually About.com) of the Buddha's views on suffering.
Here's an article suggested by this widget that's attached to my blog: