Friday, December 30, 2011

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. - Hug the Monkey

This was a good post from Rick Hanson at Huffington Post - a follow up to Pet the Lizard (about the reptile brain) and Feed the Mouse (about the mammalian brain). Here he talks about the primate brain - the part of our brain that needs to feel included and loved. Too many guys develop into lone wolves during the tough teen years, while before then most boys had very close friendships that were important.

Either out of competition (for girls, grades, a spot on the team) or fear of being thought homosexual, most guys stop having close male friends in middle school and high school.

But we need male friends. Too many of us end up with our female partner as our best and maybe only close friend, so if the relationship ends, we are alone and isolated.

Hanson is not addressing men in particular here, but the message is important for us to hear and learn how to make it a part of our lives. We all need to feel included and loved.

Hug the Monkey

Your brain evolved in three stages (to simplify a complex process):
  • Reptile -- Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal -- Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate -- Cortex, focused on attaching to "us"
The first JOT in this series -- "Pet the Lizard" -- was about how to soothe the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. The next one -- "Feed the Mouse" -- addressed how to help early mammalian neural systems feel rewarded and fulfilled. This JOT is about weaving the sense of being included and loved into the primate cerebral cortex.

In ancient times, membership in a band was critical to survival: bands with strong teamwork usually beat bands with weak teamwork at getting resources, surviving, and passing on their genes.[1] Today, feeling understood, valued and cherished -- whether as a child or an adult, and with regard to another person or to a group -- may not be a life and death matter, but it certainly affects one's happiness and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition and nurturance -- or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal or shaming.

Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it's important to "hug the monkey" (an admittedly goofy phrase) inside yourself and thus absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.

Try to routinely get a basic sense of feeling cared about. Check out this JOT for how to do this. Basically, imagine being in the presence of someone you know wishes you well. It could be a human, pet or spiritual being, and in your life today or from your past; the relationship doesn't need to be perfect as long as you matter to this person in some way, such as liking, appreciating or loving you. Then, based on the fact that this person does care about you, open to feeling cared about in your body, heart and mind. Savor this experience and really take it in. Help it sink down into you, all the way down into young, tender layers of your psyche... and really far down into those ancient primate parts in you and everyone else that desperately need to feel bonded with others, included in the band, recognized and valued.

Next, get a sense of your own caring nature. Think of someone you naturally care for, and explore what caring feels like in your body, emotions, thoughts and inclinations toward action. In the same way, explore related experiences, such as being warm, friendly, affectionate, nurturing, encouraging, protective, acknowledging or loving. Here too, really know and take in the sense of what it is like for you to "hug the monkey" in other people.

Now imagine a "caring committee" inside yourself that is involved with caring both for others and for yourself. My own committee includes the plump fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, an internalized sense of my parents and others who've loved me, spiritual teachers, Gandalf and tough-but-kind coaches on my journey through life.

Who (or what) is on your own committee? And how powerful is this committee in terms of caring for you compared to other forces inside your own mind? Since the brain is a giant network with many nodes, the psyche has many parts. These parts often coalesce into three well-known clusters: inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent. (Another way of describing these three clusters is: vulnerable self, attacker, protector.)

In most people, the inner nurturer-protector-encourager is much weaker than the inner critic-pusher-attacker. So we need to build up the caring committee by frequently taking in experiences of feeling cared about -- and then to call on and listen to this committee!

So -- get a sense of parts within you that want to feel seen, included, appreciated, wanted, respected, liked, cherished and loved. Everyone has these parts. They often feel young, soft or vulnerable. As you open to hearing from them, notice any dismissal of them, or minimizing of their needs, or even disdain or shaming. Ask your caring committee to stick up for these parts, and to tell them their longings are normal and healthy.

Imagine your caring committee soothing very young parts of yourself... praising and delighting in older parts of you... offering perspective and wisdom about tough experiences you've had... reminding you of your truly good qualities... pulling for the expression of the best in you... hugging you, hugging those soft longing parts inside you, giving them what they need... and feeling down to the soft furry little sweet monkey inside you and every human being, holding and loving and hugging it.

And meanwhile, your young, yearning, vulnerable or bruised parts -- and even your inner monkey -- can feel that they are receiving what they've always needed, what everyone needs: recognition, inclusion, respect and love.

[1] Nowak, M. "Five rules for the evolution of cooperation." Science 314:1560-1563. 2006.

~ Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and author of the bestselling Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 20 languages) -- and Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's taught at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, and U.S. News and World Report and he has several audio programs. His blog - Just One Thing - has nearly 30,000 subscribers and suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.

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