chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport Article Archives

Changing the Brain with Meditation

Melanie Bragg


  • Seven steps of awakening are steadiness, lovingness, fullness, wholeness, nowness, allness, and timelessness.
  • Steadiness of the mind provides you with a tool to navigate your emotions when interacting with people.
  • Negativity bias can hamper your daily experiences, and there is a step-by-step process to help you focus on the positive.
  • Including others in your mediation to help and support them is healing.
Changing the Brain with Meditation
Jackal Pan via Getty Images

Jump to:

When I got ahold of Rick Hanson’s book Neurodharma: New Science, Ancient Wisdom, and Seven Practices of the Highest Happiness (Harmony, 2020) and began reading it (actually, listening to the audiobook), I knew right off the bat that I had to share some of his wisdom with you. Rick Hanson, PhD, is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and a best-selling author. Hanson studies the science of positive brain change and teaches us how it works in real-life experiences. I could relate to and agree with everything he says in the book. He writes in very easy to understand language, and the book contains several great meditations.

In Neurodharma, Hanson not only explores the new neuroscience of “awakening,” but he shares new ways to train our brains to focus on our peak experiences and to develop and deepen our sense of oneness. I will point out some of the places in the book that I “clipped” for us, the parts that resonated with me and confirmed the benefits that the daily practice of meditation and a deepened attention to being in the present moment will bring to your life. There is so much more, and I hope that you check it out and develop the skills he describes because I know this will make you have better days and will also enhance your skills as a lawyer. Happier clients and better results will also follow.

Changing the Brain with Meditation

Hanson says, “After just three days of training, prefrontal regions behind the forehead exert more top-down control over the posterior (rearward) cingulate cortex (PCC). This matters because the PCC is a key part of the default mode network that is active when we’re lost in thought or caught up in ‘self-referential processing’ (for example, Why’d they look at me that way? What’s wrong with me? What should I say next time?).” He explains that after a longer training period in mindfulness, participants experience a greater “top-down control over the amygdala,” and that after the course people “produce less of the stress hormone cortisol when they’re challenged. They’ve become more resilient.” He explains that “even brief practice could change areas of your brain involved with attention, body awareness, emotional regulation, and sense of self. Sustained long-term practice can alter the brain markedly. These changes of brain foster changes of mind, bringing greater resilience and well-being.” I cannot agree more with these findings in my own personal experience.

The Seven Steps of Awakening

Hanson details the seven steps of awakening as steadiness, lovingness, fullness, wholeness, nowness, allness, and timelessness. He describes the states in a great meditation and then asks us to, during a time when something is painful, stressful, or upsetting (events a lawyer can experience daily as new case developments occur), observe our reactions to the suffering. He says we should acknowledge the reaction and say to ourselves, “This is tiring . . . that hurts . . . I’m a little sad . . .ouch.” Then, he asks us to “try to have feelings of support and compassion” for ourselves.

Steadiness of the Mind

Hanson declares that not only is steadiness of the mind important during meditation, but it is also important during daily activities as well. We deal with a variety of types of people every day, and we must be able to navigate our way through the jungle of emotions we encounter. He tells us that

In order to grow the good that lasts inside, we must break it down into two steps. 1. Experience what you would like to develop and 2. Turn that experience into a lasting change in your brain. I call the first stage activation and the second stage installation. This is positive neuroplasticity: turning passing states into lasting traits. The second stage is absolutely necessary. Experiencing does not equal learning. Without a change in neural structure or function, there is no enduring mental change for the better. Integrate mindfulness practices into your everyday life. Trust in your good nature, the deep nature we all have. Ask yourself, “Do I need to keep paying attention to this? Do I need to be driven by this or bothered by this? Do I need to let this person bother me?” Be mindful of accelerating—pressuring yourself and others.

Negativity Bias: The Velcro/Teflon Brain

I really relate to what Hanson is talking about when he explains that the brain tends to weave negative experiences into the nets of our memory. This negativity bias is the product of human evolution in harsh conditions. We needed food and to protect ourselves from predators. Hanson says that the

brain scans for bad news, overfocuses on it, overreacts to it, and fast-tracks the whole package into memory, including its emotional and somatic residues. Cortisol, the hormone that accompanies stressful or upsetting experiences, sensitizes the amygdala and weakens the hippocampus. So the brain’s alarm bell rings more loudly and the hippocampus is less able to calm it down, which fosters additional negative experiences and thus even more reactivity in a vicious cycle. In effect, we have a brain that’s like Velcro for painful, harmful experiences and Teflon for enjoyable, useful ones. This promoted survival for millions of years, but today it creates much unnecessary suffering and conflict.

Ask yourself during a negative event, is my brain being Velcro or Teflon? Promote the Teflon over the Velcro. Let go of those negative emotions. They do not serve us.

This explanation makes so much sense to me. I have often wondered why in a day when I had ten things that happened that were positive and one negative event, I would spend most of my time ruminating over the one bad one. I have noticed in the years since I have developed daily mindfulness practices and rituals that this focus has shifted. The focus on the positive has become second nature, and I am able to quickly remove the negative ones from my mind. What a relief that is to me!

Hanson gives you a detailed, step-by-step way to develop this skill through your mindfulness practices. He explains that the bad things don’t go away but that you develop the skills within to deal with them more productively and with less damage to yourself. He argues that we can heal ourselves and gives us the exercises to accomplish our goals.

Including Others in Your Meditations

Another interesting concept that Hanson discusses is the one where you bring others into your meditations, and you focus on helping and supporting them during your practice. The whole concept of helping others is so very healing and does produce those wonderful oxytocins in our brain that make feel-good emotions envelop us. I was reminded of a recent Zoom meeting with a young lawyer I am mentoring through a tough time in her life. I had a particularly challenging day the previous day, and I told her a little bit about it. She said, “Oh my. You have made me feel so much better by just sharing that with me. I realize I am not the only one who has these days.” Yes, sometimes we do feel that we are the only ones going through things, and everyone else seems to have it all under control. Yesterday, I talked with another lawyer I am working with on a tough case, and she was explaining how overwhelmed she was and how so many of her clients had unreasonable demands and expectations of her when they had not done their part on the case. I laughed and said, “I am so sorry to hear about that, but you just made me feel so much better. I was thinking yesterday that I was the only one with clients like that.” So, you see, sharing with one another, being in community with each other, and being honest about our challenges can all help someone else. Talk to each other. Develop your mindfulness practices. And see where it all takes you. I am committed to your success.

Until next time . . . namaste. Please let me know if you have any tips, sources, or experiences with mindfulness you want to share at [email protected].

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. —Zen proverb